A New Alexander Calder Retrospective Offers Rarely Seen Work and a Nostalgic Glimpse into the Artist’s Youth

Feb 23, 2016 2:55AM

“I think best in wire,” the great American artist Alexander Calder once said. Indeed, one of the most prominent works in “Calder,” a new retrospective at Heather James Fine Art, is a free-standing, 5-foot-wide mobile—a piece constructed almost 80 years ago that still looks strikingly modern.

It’s one of several little-known works on display through May at the gallery in Palm Desert, California. The exhibition pulls from private collections, bringing a range of Calder’s pieces—gouaches, lithographs, jewelry, and the artist’s signature petite stabiles, or small abstract sculptures—into public view for the first time. It’s evident, stepping into the gallery, that while Calder (1898–1976) might have thought best in wire, he also thought pretty well in paint and ink. 

Men of Straw, 1964
Heather James Fine Art

Calder is, of course, best-known for his three-dimensional “drawings in space.” (Marcel Duchamp coined the phrase “mobile”—which has a double meaning in French, referring both to “motion” and to “motive”—to describe them in 1931.) But he also had a background in painting and illustration. As a young man, Calder worked at the National Police Gazette in New York, illustrating colorful scenes from sporting events, the Central Park Zoo, and, perhaps most notably, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

There’s a hint of the circus, of whimsy and childlike amusement in many of the exhibition’s featured works, particularly Point of No Return (circa 1976) and Untitled (1945), with its the whirling forms and geometric shapes suggestive of movement and spectacle. Other pieces like Flight (1970) and Hand of Fatima (1944) are similarly joyous and vibrantly hued.

Flight, 1970
Heather James Fine Art

These aren’t just throwbacks to Calder’s early career at the newspaper, either: They’re charming reminders of the artist’s childhood. The artist was, by his own admission, a great fan of the circus long before he was hired to illustrate it. Young Calder was fascinated by movement, crafting small kinetic sculptures from found objects—works we can now see as the basis for the genre-defining installations he later went on to make.

Quilt, 1966
Heather James Fine Art

“Calder” features an impressive mobile, yes, but perhaps what’s most delightful about the exhibition is its sense of nostalgia. The artist made these works during the height of his career, yet they can be read as windows into his own past—into simpler times, old-fashioned diversions, and the innocence and creativity of youth.

Bridget Gleeson

Calder” is on view at Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, California, Nov. 27–May 27, 2016.

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