by Kevin Wolf
By the end of the 20th Century modern art was viewed with some distrust. In fact, the entire project of Modernism (and Postmodernism) looked a little spent, in my view. But commencing in the first half of the 1930's and stretching into the 70's, Modernism and abstract art had a profound impact in the United States.
An exemplar of the reach of Modernism was Alexander Calder. The Peabody Essex Museum is acting as sole east coast host for an exhibition of his art originating at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic. A selection of 40 works takes us from Calder's development of his famous mobiles to his late-career works of monumental public sculpture.
Calder's art is proof that Modernism and abstraction can engage and delight. His mobiles, in particular, are among the most popular of all art works; indeed, the very concept of "a mobile" is now commonplace. And Calder managed to create public artworks which were not only accepted but embraced by the communities in which they were placed. Aside from exceptions like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the very idea of public art is these days questioned; no one is producing popular works as Calder once did and it's unlikely anyone else will soon.
My chief interest was in seeing Calder take an unusual and original step beyond the work coming out of the 1940's. It was common as more painters pursued abstraction to see artists such as Jean Arp, Jean Miró, and Paul Klee utilizing "biomorphic" forms in their paintings: blobs, and cell-like circles, sometimes connected by lines. Calder takes these forms and introduces them into the viewer's space via mobiles and wall sculptures. While line work in pieces by Klee seem similar to "motion lines" (as in comic strips), Calder's works produce actual motion.
His "stabiles"—freestanding and usually static works in the same sheet metal and wire used for his mobiles—to my eye appear to loosely parallel the development of modern furniture design, for example Isamu Noguchi's famous glass-top table of 1944 (more solid than Calder's art, but also biomorphic in form).
Calder's work—whether hanging, standing, or balancing on a table edge—is a pleasure to see, but special mention must be made of the PEM's staging of the exhibit. Complimentary music is piped in, tying Calder to a broader Modernism in the arts. The displays are elegant, with works enhanced by lighting that emphasizes shadow. Each mobile does a sort of performance in its spotlight and casts a shadow that suggests an infinite stream of works out of just one piece.
The artworks and the settings reflect the clarity of purpose of the artists who built Modernism: simple, straightforward, clean. What was refreshingly modern in the 1940's-60's seems an oasis even now, especially in the PEM's sympathetic treatment of Calder's art.