Believe it or not, there has not been a retrospective of Alexander Calder’s work in LA, ever. Which is one reason LACMA’s new show, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic is such a treat. The curators chose to focus just on his abstract work and show how his initial identification with the Avant-Garde in France evolved through time to the point now where the mere evocation of his name evokes iconic images of his work. Interestingly, Calder got the idea for his mobiles by watching Piet Mondrian paint and deciding he wanted to make colors and shapes “oscillate” — he had never thought about modernism or making abstract art before that moment and the visit changed his life. The most revolutionary ideas are often quite simple, as was Calder’s vision of Mondrian’s shapes floating in the air.
Being able to visualize Calder’s “aha!” moment is a very nice point of entry for visitors to this show, and seems particularly apt for children (as long as they know who Mondrian is!).
The second and even better reason to see the show is that it produces pure joy in visitors. Having been in the show twice already this week, I can report that folks really do walk around and exclaim that Calder’s work puts them in a happy mood. Of course, the show itself is brilliantly laid out (by Frank Gehry, no less) so there is a zen-like peacefulness that overcomes you when you first enter the galleries. But, something about those tiny little shapes, in the elementary colors, balancing miraculously and occasionally moving a bit, just makes you feel good. It’s hard not to smile in the presence of over 50 “mobiles” and “stabiles”, as the artist’s forms were dubbed by Marcel Duchamp.
Calder is hardly a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” kind of artist. The Pittsburg born artist “revolutionized sculpture”. Having come from a family of artists, he headed to Paris in 1926 and was soon friendly with the full panoply of the avant-garde, including Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian and other Surrealists.
Calder has an interesting history with LACMA. He was commissioned to do a piece for the opening of the new museum in 1965. That piece, known as “Hello Girls” for years, was renamed “Three Quintains” in conjunction with the current Calder exhibit. The sculpture is located at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance to LACMA in the Director’s Roundtable Garden. It was originally conceived as a fountain sculpture, one of the few the artist ever created and Calder’s first site-specific commission in California.
These two posters, from 1965, are available in the museum bookstore.