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.
The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.
Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.
(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)
Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side). This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable. (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931. GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York. A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney. There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.
Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, star with Edward Hopper. One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings features in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre. Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons. Nearby are several works by Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed. Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical focus. A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble (1961; transferred later to bright video). That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations. If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing.
Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, and Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases into Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not through conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes, by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939). Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).
The Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo. Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists. Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963) remains compelling despite, or perhaps because of, the artist’s continued omnipresence in on the contemporary art scene. (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” more so than his celebrity sitters.)
The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then; and also a sort of primer on “post-painterly abstraction” (a la Clement Greenberg) in several inclusions collectively. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying, measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant. A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. A few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos. A thoughtful but not too didactic display.
With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !
Snapshot reactions to contemporary art (mainly; not exclusively) exhibited in NYC (mainly; not exclusively), by Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian, art educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, key words below, and "enter."