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Calder: Modern from the Start at the Museum of Modern Art

Few artists have been as integral to the history of the storied Museum of Modern Art as Alexander Calder. The museum first exhibited him in 1930, just months after it opened, and hosted a major mid-career survey of the artist in 1943. Calder, for his part, returned the support, giving 19 works to the museum in 1966, making MoMA one of the best places in all of New York to see works by the modern master. By bringing together early wire and wood figures, works on paper, jewelry, his famed mobiles, and large-scale abstract sculptures, Calder: Modern from the Start, which runs at MoMA until August 7th, charts this symbiotic and impactful relationship between artist and institution.

The show primarily comprises works from the museum’s collection and is supplemented by pieces loaned from the Calder Foundation, which worked closely with the museum on the exhibition. Although it tracks the history of the relationship between Calder and MoMA from its inception until today, the show's curators opted against a linear, chronological layout in favor of a curatorial flow that attempts to capture the multifaceted spirit of both their relationship and Calder’s approach to artmaking.

Installation view of Calder: Modern from the Start at the Museum of Modern Art. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Upon entering the exhibition, viewers become enveloped by examples of Calder’s large-scale “stabiles” (works that are fixed in space, in contrast to his “mobiles,” which subtly twist along with the changing air current of the room). These monumental works immediately establish a presence that is at once impactful and perhaps a little more stoic than would be expected to jumpstart a Calder exhibition, a reminder that despite the perpetual description of his art as “whimsical,” he is in fact a serious, even austere, artist.

Alexander Calder, Josephine Baker (III), circa 1927, steel wire, 39 x 22 ⅜ x 9 ¾ inches. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A short hallway leads the viewer through a quick tour of Calder’s early years, where sculptural wire portraits from the 1920s of luminous figures such as Josephine Baker hang alongside wooden sculptures of animals such as cows and horses. One of the wooden sculptures in this section, Cow, executed in 1928, was a particular favorite of inaugural MoMA Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.. It was handpicked by Barr for the museum’s ninth ever exhibition, Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans, and became one of the most popular pieces in the show, according to Barr. There is a particular liveliness in this small space, and viewers can feel the spirits of these figures as they interact with them.

Alexander Calder, Cow, 1928, wood, 12 ⅝ inches high. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition then opens up to two loosely divided rooms that encompass all phases of Calder’s career, from colorful abstract gouaches from the 1940s to intimately-sized stabile sculptures and unexpected wall hanging pieces. The first work that grabs your attention upon entering this third room is the 1934 sculpture, A Universe. As the exhibition’s catalogue explains, A Universe was the first work of Calder’s to be purchased by the museum, and a motor once powered its movements. Although he would eventually abandon this mechanical power in favor of spontaneous air current alone, this technique was what led fellow artist and friend Marcel Duchamp to dub these kinetic works “mobiles,” a term that persists today. The exhibition’s final room showcases Calder in his most ethereal moments, with sculptures that appear almost weightless by virtue of their thin connective wires and curving forms.

Alexander Calder, A Universe, 1934, painted iron pipe, steel wire, motor, and wood with string, 40 ½ x 30 inches © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The idea of a Calder exhibition may not feel as timely as the Niki de Saint Phalle show at the museum’s sister site, MoMA PS1, or the Julie Mehretu show happening at the Whitney, or the Grief and Grievance exhibition at the New Museum. But, in a time of so much struggle, loss, and seriousness, perhaps an artist like Calder is precisely who we need to imbue us with a bit of lightness. Part of why Calder has remained such a fixed part of art history is his ability to give his audiences that lighthearted spirit while making space for the intellect and innovation that permeates his work if one is willing to spend enough time with it.

Installation view of Calder: Modern from the Start at the Museum of Modern Art. © 20201 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

As museums continue to learn to adapt to the present moment, perhaps someone like Calder is worth looking to as an example of what innovation can mean. For as much as he is a staple of marquee auctions these days, and while his radicality may be lost on contemporary viewers, it is important to remember just how novel his sculptures truly were. Calder: Modern from the Start is, therefore, a salient reminder of why Calder has the reputation he has today.


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