Every generation has to bury earlier artists so that the new zeitgeist can be put forth. But, fortunately, a subsequent generation will unearth and rehabilitate the best of the banished. This seems to have happened to the sculptor Alexander Calder.
I had missed his death and burial, and had been blithely loving his work's happy vitality through the years, all unknowing. But, according to contemporary sculptor Nathan Carter, whose work is included with Calder's in the newly opened exhibition at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, that was a big no-no. "When I was in school," said Carter (MFA Yale, 1999) during the opening night program, "you just couldn't talk about Calder, you'd just be laughed out of the room."
Now you can laugh yourself into the room—laugh with pleasure when you see this installation (or "staging," as Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Lynne Warren called it) of Calder's dancing mobiles along with stationary sculptures that appear on the point of leaping. It's a true aesthetic pleasure, deriving from the interplay of line, plane, space and color with motion. Sure, there are ideas in the work, ideas about both form and content, but Calder doesn't bludgeon you with a conceptual crowbar. The work's abstract, but it doesn't puzzle. You don't have to struggle with it to tease out the meaning. A Calder sculpture means something like: The physical universe is amazing! Life is delightful! Playing with shapes is fun!
Only after you've been restored to a childlike happiness do you begin to notice the superb craft of Calder's works. Striving to escape the uncertain artistic life of his parents, he trained as an engineer, thus refining what must have been a natural tendency to precision of line, fit and balance. The lure of art was too strong, but his engineering skills were hardly wasted as he worked out the beautiful lines and hooks, and the biomorphic shapes—from seedling-size to Sequoia-size—that must balance against each other, whether suspended or rising from the ground. The best of the mobiles move like a company of dancers, always in balance no matter the ever-changing commands of the air, while the best of the stabiles make you think they could be moving when no one is watching.
The contemporary artists in the exhibition have less refined craft, but they have plenty of DIY attitude. ("Hand-made," mused Carter, "it's nostalgic in a way.") These seven were chosen by Warren for this exhibition, which she originated for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and opened in 2010 (the Nasher is its final tour location). The MCA owns a great many Calders, which of course are Modern, not contemporary, so Warren went looking for younger artists who were in some way influenced by Calder and put their work in with his to look at the connections of style, method and materials. Where Calder and many others worked with found materials, these artists "repurpose" things as part of the "creative reuse" movement. The general effect is a shade earnest, certainly with less of the uncomplicated whimsy of Calder's work. Still, there is some pretty fabulously wacky stuff here, a few pieces that are beautiful and several to make you laugh.
Nathan Carter's work is perhaps most like Calder's in its playfulness. Carter plays in bands ("loud"); makes T-shirts and posters for them; makes zines; makes metal sculpto-drawings that come out of his interest in visual poetry and musical output (one recurring image is the radio tower); makes accretions of bits of found stuff that are like mashups of his day's visual input. He is like Calder in that he is making stuff continually, and a lot of it makes you smile.
Two of the most interesting of the other artists, Kristi Lippire and Jason Middlebrook, both of whom are represented by complex mobiles as well as other works, will be in residence beginning later in the month and will take part in the museum's First Thursday Artist Conversation on March 1. On March 15, Duke professor of civil engineering and author Henry Petroski will give the annual Semans Lecture, on Calder's work. And on April 11, you can head over to Durham's DIY district and have a pint at Fullsteam while the museum staff helps you make a balanced sculpture and channel the exuberant spirit of the newly rehabilitated master of fun.
The exhibition ("trimmed" of some artworks included in the original) was mounted here by Nasher curator Sarah Schroth, who has created sensitive, spacious arrangements with maximum smile potential, marred only by a fancy vitrine near the exit. It is filled with Calder-themed merchandise the Nasher would like to sell you (the catalog is excellent and beautifully designed). Since you can see the gift shop from the gallery exit, this struck me as a vulgar touch to an otherwise purely pleasurable museum show.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The shape of things past, and to come."