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July 21 - 28, 2000

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A retrospective of Alexander Calder's moving art at the Wadsworth

by Leon Nigrosh

At the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut, through August 6.

Although I'd never met Alexander "Sandy" Calder (1898-1976), I feel as though I'd known him all my life. His whimsical sculptures, drawings, and jewelry were among the first works I saw as a child and they made a lasting impression. The current retrospective at the Wadsworth Atheneum gives everyone a similar opportunity to enjoy more than 150 objects created by this master artist during his many years as a resident in rural Roxbury, Connecticut. We also can peek into Calder's life through photos that show Calder working in his cluttered studio, relaxing with his wife, Louisa, and cavorting with his equally famous friends like writer Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989), artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and painter Yves Tanguy (1900-1955).

In the Wadsworth's large, open gallery space several of Calder's big mobiles, for which he's best known, stand freely, slowly swaying, dipping, or revolving in the gentle breeze created by visitors who pass by. One of the most impressive pieces is a 10-foot-tall untitled work that was one of Calder's first outdoor mobile/stabiles. With its steel tripod legs pushed firmly into the ground, the piece's big white and red discs turn and drift, counterbalanced by and arrangement of smaller discs. Across the room, his 1941 Un Effet du japonais takes on a spidery aspect as delicately balanced red and black rods quiver at the slightest air current.

Mobiles are so commonplace today that people tend to forget it was Calder who invented this type of kinetic sculpture. Calling upon his background in mechanical engineering, Calder created a fourth dimension to his sculpture -- that of movement or time. By hanging colorfully painted abstract metal shapes from carefully balanced rods that either rested on pinpoints or hung from the ceiling, he developed a vocabulary of objects that had life. And as far back as 1931, Duchamp was referring to Calder's experiments in motion as mobiles, which in French not only means movable or nimble, but also unstable.

Over the years Calder's delicate work became only the thinnest of masks for his playful approach to art, while he continued to produce an ever-increasing menagerie of delightful sculptural forms. Large spindly sculptures like Mantis and Giraffe along with tiny pieces such as Ostrich, or the very basic Elephant Toy, convey Calder's witty approach to art and nature.

Calder translated these natural and organic aspects into his more traditionally fabricated, non-moving sculpture (dubbed "stabiles" by artist Jean Arp in 1932), many of which populate the museum's upstairs gallery. Here we see how Calder developed his sculptures with a number of sketches and models placed next to finished works or next to photos of some of his larger installations, such as his famous Stegosaurus that's permanently installed in the plaza just outside the Wadsworth. The 15-inch-tall sheet metal maquette for Shiva belies the 20-foot size and tonnage of the many-armed piece that Calder displayed on his hilltop property until it was moved to a collector's home and finally to the Hall Foundation in Kansas City.

It's fitting that a number of drawings, paintings, and lithographs are included in the show; Calder, after all, started his career as an artist as a painter and continued to paint and draw throughout his life. On particularly amusing piece is a portrait drawing he made of playwright Arthur Miller on the wall of his barn during a rowdy party. Miller later cut the picture out of the wall and framed it. Calder also turned his talent to designing tapestries. He and his long-time friend, Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983), helped revitalize the French tapestry industry in the early 1970s by designing bold images that could be woven with specially dyed wool. His large tapestry Rasoir D'avion is a fine example of the colorful geometric abstractions he created.

There is so much more in this exhibit -- pull toys made of beer cans, a glass-bottle dinner bell, tin can birds, wire fish and spiders -- which attests to the innovative and impish spirit of this bear of a man with thick hands and an agile mind. The entire time I was there, streams of children came through the galleries pointing, giggling, and staring in wonderment. For many this was their first look at the "Cirque Calder." Who knows, perhaps Calder's work will make a lasting impression on a whole new generation -- after all, what's not to like?

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (860) 278-2670 or visit


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