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LACMA's Calder exhibit lacks the artist's panache, love of chaos

From "Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic" at LACMA
LACMA/Fredrik Nilsen
The poster for LACMA's 1965 Calder exhibit.

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Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic,’’ at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion through July.

Installing a sculpture exhibition—particularly one in which works are bound to walls, sit on pedestals, hang in the air, hover close to the ground, and vary significantly in scale—can be tricky. ... Extensive plinths, protective barriers, and pedestals mitigate intentional or inadvertent touching, but can hinder the viewer’s ability to relate intimately with the works. Clearly, decisions about density, space, light, and color would need to be weighed against concerns for the safety and protection of the art. (Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator, LACMA)

Of the 69 works by Alexander Calder now showing at LACMA—stabiles, mobiles, drawings, paintings—there’s not one that isn’t a delight. It’s the most comprehensive Calder show in decades. Then why doesn’t the whole equal the sum of its parts? Because it feels caged by its own production values.

“Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic’’ is a status undertaking. The busy “50 Shades of Grey” setting was designed by Frank Gehry in the pavilion donated by those fructiferous squillionaires, Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Maybe that’s why it can’t seem to cut loose.

Calder’s innate playfulness was once confused with superficiality, but just because he’s so entertaining doesn’t mean he isn’t profound. His gravity-thwarting games are tiny doorways into the infinite. Over titles like “Universe,” Calder brings visions of the cosmos. How he would have loved our century’s discovery of far galactic planets. His was a mobile, expanding universe.

But not here.

What went wrong was disregard for Calder’s intent. LACMA Curator Stephanie Barron notes: “During Calder’s lifetime, [his] displays seemed to mimic those found in his studio: crowded together, overlapping, presenting a riotous cacophony of competing forms far removed from contemporary concerns of conservation and visitor-circulation paths.”

To me, the phrase “during Calder’s lifetime” means: “this was how Calder wanted his work shown.” But not at LACMA, where “Concerns of conservation and visitor-circulation paths” won.  We are enjoined not to touch, not even to breathe on Calder’s monuments to motion. That’s against the very soul of the 20th century’s most free-spirited sculptor.

Here’s what I mean: At one point, our docent explained at great length the mechanics of a particular mobile, while our attention wandered. Moments later, a random air current stirred the structures of a nearby piece into complex interacting motions ... and the crowd stared, bedazzled.

Motion is what Calder is about.  Has any artist ever had a surer sense of movement? How to use it, abuse it, amuse it, even to thwart it? But at LACMA, motion occurred only by accident. This show was reverence, not joy. So my mind drifted back 50 years, to the first Calder show I ever saw. It was the 1964 monster Retrospective in New York. (As it happens, Barron and Gehry were there too). That show was pure joy.

Of course, there were some insurmountable advantages. First, it was in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, whose spiral format flaunted the Calder charm to the utmost.

And second, at least on opening night, it had Alexander Calder himself. Starting from the top of that grand concrete spiral, with a very alcoholic exuberance, he augured down through his dangling domain of decades of accomplishments. In his red Pendleton shirt, the white-haired Calder looked like a freshly-shaven Santa Claus, blowing on, even bumping his creations, those magic doodads hanging from the ceilings of the ramps and in every corner, if there had been any corners. They were meant to move; he made them move.

My friend Kathy, then just 20, just couldn’t stop herself; she ran up and kissed him, thanking him for everything he’d ever done. (I wish now that I’d run up and kissed him, too.) Calder took it very well, then continued his bumbling amble, humming all the way down. 

Great moments never return, of course. So what we have in this town is the Calder show of now. It could be so much better. You should see it anyway, because even this caged bird sings.