If you like Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, you’ll love the sculpture of Alexander Calder.
And vice versa.
As an artist Calder certainly wasn’t in the business of illustrating difficult scientific postulates. (Born on the cusp of the 20th century, he died at 78 in 1976.) In fact, one frequent knock on him was the claim that, while charmingly whimsical, his sculpture is physically, emotionally and intellectually lightweight.
After all, this is the guy who built an entire miniature circus out of cardboard, some buttons and a bunch of twisted wire. He dropped humble metals for high-end silver and gold in order to craft bracelets, necklaces and brooches. And in the 1930s he hit his stride with the development of the mobile — suspended kinetic sculptures that drift on currents of air — eventually inspiring an entire commercial industry for the gurgling amusement of infants.
How could any of that be as serious as a modern theorem that revolutionized, well, just about everything — from the old philosophical belief in the possibility of absolute truth to conventional weaponry, which morphed into the apocalyptic power of the atom bomb?
A fascinating feature of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s beautiful exhibition of his abstract constructions, especially the famous mobiles, is how deftly it reveals an aspect of Calder’s work that, to me at least, had never been evident before. Motion doesn’t really describe it. Instead, this is sculpture whose enduring fascination rides on the articulation of the curvature of space through time.
It does so with elegance and grace. Or, one might say, with the simplicity and profundity of E=mc².
As for abstraction, probably the most common design used to describe the structure of the modern world is not a curve but a grid, whose orderly repetition of squares symbolizes the triumph of the machine and mass production over organic rhythm and flow. For example, the flat intersection of the horizontal and the vertical is a hallmark of Piet Mondrian’s paintings.
In fact, a 1930 visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio inspired Calder’s own leap into total abstraction. Yet what turns up again and again throughout the show is not a Mondrian-style grid but curved space. It dominates whether you are looking at suspended mobiles or Earth-bound objects standing on the floor or resting on a pedestal.
Curvature is obvious in the sculptures’ organic forms. Except for a few bases and some stands, especially in Calder’s earlier sculptures, you’ll be hard-pressed to find more than a couple straight lines anywhere in the show.
Instead, lines bend, edges arc and shapes bow. One coarsely textured, rather hefty bronze is weighted so that a limb reaches out over the edge of a plinth and curves downward, ending up beneath the tabletop. (Twenty years later, British sculptor Anthony Caro would make an entire suite of similarly cantilevered works.) More provocatively, though, Calder’s mobiles trace infinitely complex curved paths through space.
Affixed to wire arms, the mobiles’ carefully balanced disks, spheres and paddles cannot physically follow a straight course. Like the wire lines, cut edges and sheet-metal shapes, the pathways bend, arc and bow. “Snow Flurry” (1948), probably the most beautiful mobile in the show, is a gentle commotion of 30 white disks suspended on 26 delicately curved wires. In motion, the effects of gravity draw the curvature of space through time.
Einstein, upon seeing the 1943 Calder exhibition at the Museum of Modern art, understood. As quoted in the show’s catalog, he lamented: “I wish I had thought of that.”
Einstein got what eluded art critic Clement Greenberg. The writer savaged the MOMA survey as sculpture inappropriately mimicking paintings by Picasso and Miró.
But Calder’s mobiles were important in the radical development of the concept of drawing in space. That technique became the structural lingua franca for much that came after, including art as various as Henri Matisse’s paper cutouts, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Eva Hesse’s sculptural skeins of latex, Gordon Matta-Clark’s chain saw cuts into walls, Lucio Fontana’s neon squiggles, Robert Irwin’s translucent scrims and lots more.
One nice thing about the LACMA exhibition is that Calder’s brand of curved, spatial “drawing” is made plain not through written wall texts but experientially, thanks to the whip-smart and unobtrusive installation design by architect Frank O. Gehry. Curved walls, many painted pale gray, set the stage. Lighting is carefully controlled (the skylights have been covered over). Essential artistic qualities in Calder’s sculptures shine through.
LACMA curator Stephanie Barron has relied on the Calder Foundation for more than half the show’s 45 sculptures and five small-scale maquettes. The other 19 works have been borrowed from American museums and private collections.
So this is not an exhibition that closely traces the complexities of an artist’s evolution, reinterprets its significance or places the sculpture within a larger social or artistic context. Instead it’s a rich, almost celebratory overview, chiefly inspired as background for an important work in LACMA’s permanent collection.
Fifty years ago, a LACMA support group commissioned Calder to design a fountain for the new museum building then being erected on Boulevard. “Hello Girls,” titled partly as a nod to the women who were the driving force behind the commission, is composed of three triangular pylons of folded sheet-metal in stainless steel, atop which mobiles are suspended. Red, yellow, white and black paddles are animated by four water-jets, set into a moat around the museum.
The moat was drained and filled in long ago, so the sculpture now stands in a small pool at the building’s southeast corner. As the exhibition title implies, “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” juxtaposes art that was once unconventional with the inevitable institutionalization that comes with a major museum commission. Monumental commissioned Calder sculptures are now found in cities around the world.
In organizing the exhibition, LACMA’s sculpture even got a new name. Research showed that its formal title, discovered in the artist’s handwriting on the back of a photograph of his model for the sculpture, is “Three Quintains.”
A quintain is an object attached to a movable crossbar mounted on a post, used by medieval knights as a target in the sport of tilting. As the LACMA fountain splashes and the paddles move through fluid space, think of “Three Quintains (Hello Girls)” as Einstein’s theory of special relativity playfully jousting with the old concept of gravity, conceived of by Sir Isaac Newton.
‘Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic’
Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through July 27. Closed Wednesdays.
Contact: (323) 857-6000, https://www.lacma.org