The stark white room is punctuated by abstract black forms — jagged, organic, dramatic and playful — that sprout up from the floor or dangle languidly from the ceiling. Glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, they shift ever so slightly as you walk down the long gallery space, a former bank building. Around each corner, a new surprise.
This is a new exhibition of work by Alexander Calder, one of the most iconic American artists of the 20th century, at Hauser & Wirth’s Los Angeles location. Titled “Calder: Nonspace,” it brings together 30 sculptures spanning 1939 to 1976, the year the artist died. Almost every work is painted black, allowing visitors to focus on the interplay of positive and negative shapes that Calder so deftly created from sheets of metal and wire rods.
The exhibition’s title comes from a 1963 essay by novelist James Jones, who noted that Calder’s sculptures “are able to fill a given space without occupying it,” through their juxtapositions of solid and void. Standing before one of Calder’s monumental public sculptures, “Jones suggested he was terrified to walk through it because he didn't know where he would come out on the other side, spiritually not physically,” says Alexander S.C. Rower, founder and president of the Calder Foundation, and also the artist’s grandson. “He felt that energy that Calder presents.”
“Nonspace” includes both mobiles — the term coined in 1931 by Marcel Duchamp to describe Calder’s kinetic sculptures that move in response to air currents and gravity — as well as their static cousins, stabiles. They range in size from table-top maquettes to large-scale sculptures, five of which tower over visitors in the gallery’s outdoor central courtyard. In a few instances, both the model and the finished sculpture are on view, providing a glimpse into Calder’s process.
A larger exhibition of Calder’s work, “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic,” was mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013, complementing this more focused show with a wider look at his career.
“That was a broad stroke about abstraction in his work; this is a microcosm,” says Rower. “It’s about creating a space of personal access, about the tension when the steel meets the air, that's supposed to engage you and bring you into the show.”
Although Calder may be more often associated with Philadelphia, where he was born, than Los Angeles, “Nonspace” can also be considered something of a homecoming for Calder, who spent a brief but formative period of his youth in Pasadena. His family moved there in 1906, when he was 8, and stayed for a few years before moving back East.
“When you think of the freedom of his work, the idea of the mobile, this sculpture that is released to take its own path through the air, there’s a kind of California ethos, this free-spirited, experimental California feeling,” says Jed Perl, author of the definitive biography of the artist, “Calder: The Conquest of Time.”
Perl also notes that in the early 20th century, Pasadena was the American capital of the Arts & Crafts movement, which prioritized a kind of pre-industrial artisanal craftsmanship in architecture, the arts and design. Calder’s parents, who were both artists, surely came into contact with these trends, passing along a love of the handmade to their young son.
“The point was to get away from the routinized, industrialized world, to try to get back to individual, the making of things by hand,” Perl says.
Although Calder used industrial materials — sheet metal, rivets, bolts — the hand of the artist, or one of the skilled metal workers he employed, was always apparent. Sitting in the courtyard of Hauser & Wirth, Rower points out the weld beads on a sculpture, where one piece of steel meets another. It shows that these abstract forms are not factory produced, but objects made by human work and sweat.
“The weld beads are left visible, he loved the process to be shown,” he says. “He loved to show the craftsmanship of these technicians.”
The works on view were originally located as far away as France, Beirut or India, but for Perl, they still show the lessons Calder learned in Southern California.
“He worked very closely with the iron workers,” Perl says. “There has to be a direct link between the artist and the making. The artisanal quality of his work, his connection to craft of metal work, comes from those early years in Pasadena.”
Part of the intimacy of the show is accomplished by the masterful exhibition design by architect Stephanie Goto, who lowered the gallery’s cavernous ceilings by hanging a scrim, and slightly angled the platforms on which the sculptures are placed, giving the impression of accessibility.
Despite his emphasis on personal interaction with these works, Rower cautions against blowing on the mobiles, as countless museumgoers are tempted to do.
“Mobiles are not supposed to move, except when they do,” he quips. “The public who comes into a show gives maybe a minute to each sculpture and wants instant gratification. You have to slow yourself down and bring yourself to the work. Eventually, you'll have the experience of activity. They're not machines.”
Neither are they depictions of nature, according to Rower, even though their curvilinear elements may resemble leaves and their spiky points mountaintops.
“Calder said he was not an abstract artist, taking something known and creating an image out of it,” Rower notes. “He created images from his own intuition, his own experience. Not the tree, but the force of the wind on the tree, the unseen force. A mobile is a tool that helps us define these unseen forces.”
Those forces are constantly at work in “Nonspace,” even if we don’t perceive them, which provides for a captivating viewing experience.
“The most extraordinary experience is when you sit there and you're present to the mobile, having an intimate experience,” Rower says excitedly. “You look at it and it’s static. You look away and you look back and it’s in a totally different position, but not moving.”
Where: Hauser & Wirth, 901 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mondays. Through Jan. 6