Calder in Washington

There was no decree naming Alexander Calder (1898-1976) the capital’s official artist, but walking around the National Mall, you’d think there had been. His abstract sheet-metal sculptures are in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and American History museums, and a mammoth mobile dominates the atrium of the National Gallery’s East Building. An abundance of his works is on display in these museums as well as in the Phillips Collection. He also invented meatl-wire drawing in space. All told, he made a few hundred wire figures before abandoning the medium for abstraction in the 1930s. Among them were several dozen celebrities, athletes and art-world friends that are the main focus of “Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” at the National Portrait Gallery through August 14, 2011.

Alexander Calder with untitled wire portrait and Edgar Varese (foreground). (Photo by Ugo Mulas, 1963)

There was no decree naming Alexander Calder (1898-1976) the capital’s official artist, but walking around the National Mall, you’d think there had been. His abstract sheet-metal sculptures are in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and American History museums, and a mammoth mobile dominates the atrium of the National Gallery’s East Building. An abundance of his works is on display in these museums as well as in the Phillips Collection.

Alexander Calder, Josephine Baker, wire, The star work in the show was withdrawn by the Calder Foundation in protest of the National Portrait Gallery's censorship of a work last fall.
Alexander Calder, Josephine Baker, wire, The star work in the show was withdrawn by the Calder Foundation in protest of the National Portrait Gallery’s censorship of a work last fall.

In fact, the first notable modernist public sculpture in town was a Calder. That’s the explosive mass of black metal on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NW, named “The Gwenfritz” after patron Gwendolyn Cafritz. It was the centerpiece of a fountain created in 1969 outside the National Museum of History and Technology and later dismantled. Now the museum, renamed the National Museum of American History, intends to return the Calder to a reflecting pool planned for the original site, though no date has been set.

And one more bit of D.C. Calder trivia: His last trip was to Washington to fine-tune plans for the massive sculpture now in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. (see image) When he returned to New York that evening in 1976, he suffered a heart attack and died.

What made him so popular? Those abstract sheet-metal sculptures from the 1960s and ’70s, and the kinetic mobiles he invented in the 1930s, were sophisticated but not aloof, whimsical but not silly. At a time when modernism was not entirely embraced, their mix of formal intelligence and accessibility appealed to nearly everyone.

Calder, Mountains and Clouds, designed 1976, completed 1986, painted aluminum & steel, ca. 51 x 75 ft, Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC.

It’s not surprising to learn that earlier in his career, Calder had invented another sculptural medium: wire used to make three-dimensional drawings in space. Using pliers and his bare hands, he twisted wire and combined it with other materials to create “Calder’s Circus,” a miniature troupe of acrobats, lion tamers, elephants, clowns and strongmen that he animated in performances (click for video) in New York and Paris, where he and his wife lived until moving to Connecticut in 1933.

All told, he made a few hundred wire figures before abandoning the medium for abstraction in the 1930s. Among them were several dozen celebrities, athletes and art-world friends that are the main focus of “Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” at the National Portrait Gallery through August 14, 2011.

Click here or on one of the images to read my review in The Washington Post.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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