NEW YORK (AP) – An art exhibit can be hard to interest children in unless, like the Alexander Calder show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it’s full of toys, animals, circus paraphernalia and big, moving objects made of wires, rods and balls.
Adults are just as likely to be entertained and enthralled by this kid-friendly show, which traces the development of Calder’s world famous mobiles during seven formative years he spent as a young man in New York and Paris.
The son of two artists, an 11-year-old Calder presented his parents with sculptures of a dog and a duck fashioned out of brass. He graduated in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. But the young man could not escape his destiny.
After graduating from college, Calder traveled around the United States and Canada, working odd jobs until a fateful job interview with an engineer who advised him to follow his heart when choosing a profession. So he returned to New York and enrolled in art school.
The Whitney exhibit begins with several pleasant but largely unremarkable paintings he did in New York in the early to mid 1920s when he was under the influence of the Ashcan School of social realism.
He also supported himself as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, producing reams of drawings that demonstrate a sure sense of line, a keen eye for detail and a love of sports, entertainers and animals.
In 1926, Calder moved to Paris, then the epicenter of the art world. It was there that his penchant for tinkering with found materials and his fondness for making toys converged with his great passion for the circus.
Tapping an engineer’s understanding of how bodies move through space, Calder began work on a monumental project that would take five years to complete: a collection of miniature circus sets and performers – including aerialists, clowns and acrobats – that he fashioned out of wire, string, bits of metal and cloth, and animated in elaborate performances set to music.
“Calder’s Circus,” which is part of the Whitney’s permanent collection, is the first hint that this engineer-painter-sculptor was well on his way to revolutionizing art with his radical notion of kinetic sculpture.
During this period, Calder began making a series of wire busts and sculptures, turning to a cheap material readily available in hardware stores instead of more traditional sculptural materials such as bronze, clay, stone and wood.
The critics, not always approvingly, dubbed it “drawing in space.” A gallery of his wire busts – witty, affectionate, lively portraits of friends, celebrities and politicians including Jimmy Durante and Calvin Coolidge – greets visitors stepping off the elevator on the fourth floor of the Whitney.
He also used wire to fashion larger, airy tableaux of contemporary and mythological subjects, including Romulus and Remus, actress and entertainer Josephine Baker and tennis great Helen Wills, lunging for a ball in her unmistakable visor and knee-length skirt, with racket in outstretched arm.
Even though the wire artworks represented a new way of thinking about “empty” space, Calder’s work was still largely figurative. It would take a visit to the studio of his friend Piet Mondrian for Calder to find his true genius.
After seeing Mondrian’s geometric paintings, Calder was inspired to try for the same effect in three dimensions. From that point on, he largely abandoned figurative work and spent the rest of his career creating abstract sculptures of geometric and later, biomorphic shapes that incorporated empty space and motion into the design.
Primitive motors powered some, while others were subject to random currents of wind. His friends called them mobiles and later, for the ones that didn’t move, stabiles.
Two large galleries at the end of the exhibition are devoted to these early works, usually composed of red, black and white parts. One clearly pays tribute to his composer friend Edgard Varese, with a swinging ball designed to make noise when let loose on a collection of bottles and other objects.
Coming after gallery upon gallery of figurative drawings and sculptures, these early mobiles are exhilarating, signaling the “eureka” moment when Calder did something no one had ever done before.
When he returned to New York, still in his mid 30s, he was an internationally recognized figure, on his way to becoming the celebrated artist whose mobiles and monumental sculptures would become part of the canon of 20th-century Western art.
Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933 closes Feb. 15, then travels to the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
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