ART REVIEWS : Calder Balances Intellect, Accessibility


With an unmitigated taste for whimsy rather than a cerebral approach to form, Alexander Calder has long been seen as a minor Modernist, best known as the ringmaster of a playful sculpture called “The Circus” and the champion of the gravity-defying mobile. Certainly this reputation has something to do with the fact that by the 1950s Calder’s mobiles had already been sucked into the era’s burgeoning consumerist apparatus, with imitations proliferating in decorator showrooms the world over and originals serving as backdrops for magazine layouts.

If their charm proved irresistibly commodifiable, their ubiquity proved damning--at least in certain High Art quarters. And yet it is worth noting that Marcel Duchamp was co-curator of Calder’s 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction to the catalogue of his solo show in Paris three years later.

At PaceWildenstein, an important exhibition of Calder’s works of the 1950s makes the case that this artist’s accessibility need not cancel out his intellectual pretensions. What can be misleading is the fact that the work is not obsessive; it is intensely sociable. If the artist makes a fetish of gravity, clocks the breeze, monitors chance and celebrates the self-sufficiency of primary colors, he does so with great discretion.

Calder’s engineering skills are not trumpeted here, but they are unmistakable, both in the mobiles and the standing works, where organic slivers of painted aluminum balance one another with deceiving ease. The complex interlacings of “Demi Gondola” are particularly interesting. The part-standing, part-dangling piece is a paradox: It looks at once like an architectural drawing, rendered in lengths of wire and string, and like an architectural model for a fantasy structure, complete with its own mini-Calder mobile, executed to scale.


If this work is largely conceptual, several lesser-known works suggest a scavenger’s discriminating mentality. In one, tiny fragments of snail and oyster shells, a piece of painted porcelain and a disk of green glass, crowned with a hat of spiraling wire, hang from string with stylish aplomb.

The piece seems like part of a larger ensemble, evoking a certain attitude, perhaps even a lifestyle: urban sterility with an insouciant, biomorphic twist. At a moment when questions of design are important to many younger artists, works like this one are surprisingly contemporary.

* PaceWildenstein, 9540 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 205-5522, through Dec. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Happy Convergence: There is often something sad about collages, bred, as they are, from homeless bits and pieces of things. Roy Dowell’s collaged paintings at Margo Leavin Gallery are different. Here, disparate fragments are put together with such happy industry and secured with bold strokes of paint where they threaten to come undone that melancholy is out of the question.

In keeping with the work of a second-generation, jazz-besotted Cubist like Stuart Davis, Dowell is fond of the sorts of perceptual collisions that signal modern life. Pilfered shards and strips of billboard advertisements--letters, numbers, anonymous marks and fractured images--bump into one another, and then interlock as tightly as a jigsaw puzzle.

The telltale polka dots of mass reproduction are left intact, creating surface textures whose granularity vies with the smooth, Pop-like sheen of other passages. These works are not about the shock of the new but its reassuring persistence--the knowledge that when you wake up in the morning, the media culture will provide you with ample doses of that season’s flavor of eye candy.

This sounds more cynical than it looks. Dowell keeps resignation at bay by focusing on small epiphanies: a smiling, slapstick line looping its way across different forms; a sly meditation upon the circle, from a target to the letter O to what looks to be an egg; a vertical stripe of text that articulates pictorial space as surely as one of Barnett Newman’s “zips” and, in the process, transforms the sublime into yet another piece of another unseen thing.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 273-0603, through Dec. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.