Alexander Calder: See the Exhibit in Salem Before January 4

Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic
Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through January 4, 2015

Want to start an instant argument? Ask a group of people to name the most influential artists of all time. How does one even begin to frame such a debate? Does one judge by what art critics say? Probably not; many of them wax rhapsodic over classical works that bore modern viewers or conceptual pieces they ignore. By the highest values obtained on the open market? Surely not–unless one values art as a mere commodity. Heaven forbid it would be by the number of pieces sold. By such reckoning Vincent Van Gogh was an utter flop and Thomas Kinkade is a master. But if we frame the question according to a standard of lives affected, surely Alexander Calder (1898—1976) must be considered in the top tier.

Think I exaggerate? Is there an infant born in the Western world after 1932 who did not have a mobile hanging over his or her crib and playpen? Calder's art or, more accurately, the idea of art he first unleashed has been the first impression of art that nine (and counting) decades' worth of children ever saw or thrilled over. Calder's idea was at once simple and complex: liberate sculpture from its earthly anchor. In times B.C. (Before Calder) sculptures sat squat; in the A.C. era they could move. It was Marcel Duchamp, a man who also liked bending convention, who dubbed them "mobiles," a French double pun that translates as both mobile and motive. Duchamp may have suspected Calder's motive was commercial, but it's fair to say that Calder liberated more than wallets.

Mobiles are a simple idea, but as a show at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem reveals, any erstwhile Calder wannabe had better know a few things about mathematics and physics. The same generations that grew up with Calder also contains legions of frustrated crafters who learned the hard way that unless one knows about weights, counterweights, ratios, and balances the line between imagination and ineptitude is far broader than one of Calder's delicate wires. The PEM has several of Calder's sketches framed by his creations and each shows that there's much more to a mobile than choosing a few cool shapes and stringing them on tiered axes.

The PEM show is small, but choice. It is one of the better-lighted exhibits I've ever attended, the curators keenly aware that the interplay of shape, shadow, and dynamism is part of Calder's magic. The chosen shapes evoke geometry as imagined by surrealists, but also frequently suggest birds or leaves. As well they should because the real show is the shadows they cast while in motion. Calder's mobiles are at once compositions and decompositions. I stood transfixed before one larger work whose shadows suggested a city crumbling, then rebuilding in time to collapse anew. In fact, my only criticism of the PEM show was that more air circulation in the gallery would have increased the inherent malleability of Calder's pieces.

Wadsworth Museum, Hartford
There were, toward the end of the gallery, a few of Calder's stabiles as well. These struck me as relatively uninteresting after witnessing the fluidity of light, shadow, shape, and air inherent in the mobiles. I must confess, though, that I've never been particularly drawn to Calder's stabiles. They give color to public spaces such as the courtyard of Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum but, to me, their industrial solidity serves mainly to call my attention to how oddly out of sorts they seem to be with their staid surroundings. But oh to dance with the wispy shadows…

This show is closing in January and the PEM is its only East Coast showing. It's worth making the trek to Salem to see it. You can wile away the cold by walking behind the museum and taking a one-block stroll to the A&J King Bakery for a coffee and amazing pastries. It's a nice way to spend an early winter's morning, if you ask me.  Rob Weir

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