Pas de Deux: Calder and Calatrava on Madison Avenue
Alexander Calder. MULTUM IN PARVO at Dominque Lévy
April 22 to June 13, 2015
909 Madison Avenue at 73rd Street
New York City, 212 772 2004
Dominque Lévy has opened a jewel of a show of Alexander Calder in her Madison Avenue gallery. But careful when you say that. Calder’s protean inventiveness did in fact extend beyond his pioneering mobiles and stabiles to include bodily adornments. This isn’t a show of his jewelry, however, but of small sculptures, albeit that some are no bigger than a brooch.
Besides gathering over three-dozen works varying from the staggeringly minute to around a foot high, Ms. Lévy’s coup de grace has been to orchestrate a posthumous pas de deux between the legendary sculptor, who died in 1976, and living architects Santiago Calatrava and his son Gabriel Calatrava (counted as one for balletic purposes!) who have installed the exhibition with exquisite taste and commensurate verve.
The design has all the characteristic fusion of the voluptuous and the streamlined of a classic Calatrava bridge or pavilion while managing to showcase, and even subtly offset, the delicate robustness of Calder. Calatrava’s pristine curves and trademark whiteness offer the perfect foil for the rough-at-the-edges handmadeness of Calder’s sculptural forms in wire and plate in black and the primaries, forms lent further texture by splintery charred wooden elements, found pebbles and glass, and even, in one instance, a spoon retrieved from a dump. While the tinier stabiles are housed in gorgeously realized steel and glass vitrines along outer walls, larger pieces are supported in the middle of the rooms on small circular tables of varying height. These include the few suspended mobiles which each have their own committed table, a nice touch as it adds clarity and consistency to the display. The tables rest on amoeba-shaped steps, a detail that’s both very Calatrava and evocative of a midcentury moderne that in turn is perfectly attuned to Calder’s aesthetic.
Miraculous placement ensures that while there are conversations going on around the room, each piece occupies its own space, is free to generate its own internal scale. Frank O’Hara once said of early collages by Alex Katz that “the size is intimate but the scale is vast,” an apposite phrase for these smaller Calders. (Multum in parvo, the show’s title, borrowed from print connoisseur Carl Zigrosser, kind of says the same thing in Latin.) As Jed Perl, who is authoring a biography of Calder, astutely describes in his essay for the forthcoming catalogue of this show, Calder had varying reasons to work small. Some pieces were maquettes for architectural proposals; some, from the mid-1940s, took their dimensions and indeed mode of construction from the size restrictions of newly introduced air mail used to send works to his Paris dealer, Louis Carré. But some of the smallest pieces might actually have had philosophical purpose behind their diminutive scale:
For the inventor of the mobile, who was fascinated by the way objects move through space, the miniature was another way of playing with space, of dramatically shrinking space, of taking what might be vast and rendering it nearly microscopic.
The Calatravas’ duet with Calder bring to mind the audacious, sometimes provocative yet ultimately complementary gallery designs of the legendary Friedrich Kiesler, except that whiteness ensures that their position towards the art is the more modest. There is actually something mildly retro about Santiago Calatrava’s aesthetic, a yesteryear sense of what the future might hold. Although maybe that is just a way of saying that both Calatrava and Calder deviate from harsher, brutalist aesthetics with their soft and fluent curves, in that Calatrava is in the tradition of Alvar Aalto, not to mention Gaudí, more than Mies or le Corbusier, while Calder’s playful modernism stands in contrast to the sterner stuff of David Smith, another welder coming out of Surrealism, which evidently obliged Smith’s formalist champions to denigrate Calder at any opportunity. The pairing of Calatrava and Calder might subtly reference their mutual affinity, their soft modernism. Calder, meanwhile, is no stranger to the antics of forceful architects: in his own life he teamed up several times with Jose Luis Sert (the Loyalist Pavilion where his Mercury Fountain kept Guernica company for instance) while quite recently Frank Gehry did a striking good job of installing a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Calatravas are joining an illustrious line.
There is one Calatrava decision, however, that touches on intrusiveness: each vitrine and gueridon sports a mirror top, an effect that lends charm and luxury to the installation, for sure, but tends to coerce inverted readings of Calder’s sculptural forms. Sometimes the mirrors provide insight, allowing us to savor the engineering of Calder’s welded pieces, but there is already such a lexicon of formal possibilities in the way a Calder wobbles and bobs along that this mirror stage seems regressive. Also, doubling up each sculpture (the hanging mobiles are freed of this) with its mirror form denies the strong figural quality that pervades so many works. Not only are we policed into an abstract reading of these personages, the mirroring also denies the radically asymmetrical quality of Calder by saddling each completed gestalt with a Siamese twin. (Calatrava, Paul Goldberger observes in another catalogue essay, is a confirmed fan of symmetry.) But looking slightly askance or crouching to the level of the table eliminates this problem, if a problem it is.
I wonder if Calder would have minded this: he seemed to delight in creative misreadings of his inventions. He was happy to leave the naming of his new forms to his friend Marcel Duchamp who coined the terms mobile and stabile. Another friend, Herbert Matter, photographed his hanging mobiles with a long exposure such that the strobe effect traces their swinging action. The clean, almost clinical aesthetic with which the Calatravas package his works pluck Calder from his yankee Connecticut barn into an almost futuristic environment, but that’s fine: Calder belongs to both.