Tag Archives: abstract art

Alexander Calder: American Modernist at Mid-Century tied to MoMA

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start; through August 7 at MoMA (New York)

Calder is renowned as the “mobile” guy whose shape-shifting sculpture inspired an industry of dangling decorative objects.  His prolific public art and high print yield has capped his status as among the most famous American artists of the 20th century, up there with the populist Norman Rockwell and Pop-ist Andy Warhol.  Equally feel-good and recognizable in his buoyant modernist metier, he shares with them a conveyed optimistic sensibility.  Specifically, Calder offers an accessible snapshot of European-derived abstraction between and immediately following the wars through an American roots lens.  This exhibition provides an overview via Calder’s relationship with and presence in the collection of MoMA from early on and throughout his career. 

Despite the many NYC venues where one might seek out or run into a Calder at just about any moment, I still appreciate a cache of his art just about any where, as in, most recently, the Whitney’s targeted show “Hypermobility” (2017)– and again here. Ultimately Calder delivers an unpretentious kind of elemental universe–concerned with opacity and transparency, shadow and light, mass and line–but also content-wise as in the actual universe, along with the micro version, our personal space. And therefore not “non-objective” per se; along with astronomical phenomenon, generative subject matter includes, prominently, an array of creatures (including human beings).

Indeed his earliest mature works are small-scale figures of wire and wood (good examples on view), quintessential examples of making art magic with next to nothing, that belie acute visual shorthand, low-tech ingenuity, and a certain humility. His later large-scale steel assemblages cut sinuous contours into space somewhat similarly, stretched out and opaque.

In his day, Calder was part of the art in-crowd (white, male) from the West to East Coast US to Europe and back and forth; exposed to Ashcan School influencers followed by Duchamp and Mondrian; and a recipient of formal training in mechanical engineering and art.  Still, much of his oeuvre seems a direct off-shoot of his childhood tinkering and memories, for example, adornments for his sister’s dolls, and formative experiences of the sky. Early commercial gigs included illustrations of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and images for a toy manufacturer—culminating in his famous artist-activated suitcase circus (Calder’s Circus, Whitney Museum) and entrée into the bohemian art crowd in Paris.

Much of Calder’s art is inhabited by a kind of child-like wonder, a vocal if elusive goal of many canonical (again, European, male-coded) modernists, prominently Picasso. Overall, Calder’s output comes across as authentic vis-a-vis art gestures derived from immediate, momentary reflection.

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start, at the Museum of Modern Art (4/14/21)

Neo-Geo’s Finest Hour: Frank Stella at the Whitney

“Frank Stella: A Retrospective”

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 7, 2016

It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at pre-c. 1990 Stella in person rather than reproduction–as usual, indescribably worth it vis-a-vis true appreciation for the crafted subtleties that were central to his early painting project as a whole.   Definitely forgot the buzzy spill-over into Op-artiness.  Once the 3-D elements set in, the separation of painting and sculpture blows up in a way that fulfills Donald Judd’s observations and prescriptions in “Specific Objects” (1965), in which he praised, as the right direction, Stella’s then novel shaped canvases.  Yet, Stella remains a painter in the mind as Picasso does in the gut–the few ingenious sculptures featured in his current MoMA show not withstanding.  Put another way: like the mythic earlier master, when Stella  does go full out 3D, whether in throw-back modernist table top constructions or the colossal computer-generated “stars” landed on the 4th floor outdoor patio, a bold but studied negotiation of forms consolidates into a material and intellectual solution with a punch.

While not a hint of figuration appears in the 50-year coverage on view, individual works take on distinct personalities, ironically.  At a certain point, definitively established from around 1990, the works turn from graphic experiments to buoyant, or angry, or contemplative, or meditative (etc.) “presences” — the goal of abstraction, in the end, according to the early accolades of long-time critical supporter, Michael Fried.

For anyone (still) ambivalent about “non-objective” art per se, this show could turn you.