In art school, Calder was frowned upon, because he’s so iconic,” says Jason Middlebrook, one of seven contemporary artists whose Calder-influenced work will be shown as part of the “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” exhibition, opening Saturday 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Despite (and perhaps because of) Calder’s popular appeal, he hasn’t always been celebrated in the art world. Some scholars have criticized his works as too playful or simplistic and devoid of layered meanings.
The modernist master’s work—featuring movement, recycled materials, primary colors and a playful, unpretentious approach to abstraction—is undoubtedly accessible. You’ve probably seen Calder’s simple, free-moving mobiles or the huge orangish-red Flamingo sculpture in Federal Plaza (and maybe had no idea it was a flamingo or a Calder), or you may have seen his moving mural Universe in the lobby of Willis Tower. And if you haven’t watched a YouTube video of his amazing miniature circus, with its movable figures fashioned from wire, bottle caps and bits of cloth, search Calder miniature circus on the site—now.
If you’re not familiar with any of these works, this summer’s traveling exhibition showcasing 60 pieces from the iconic artist’s illustrious career is a great place to start. The show will feature a range of Calder’s mobiles (kinetic sculptures such as Blue Among Yellow and Red, 1963), stabiles (static, abstract sculptures such as Octopus, 1964) and bronze sculptures, along with nearly 20 sculptures by seven contemporary artists, including Middlebrook, who have been influenced by Calder. By showing their work alongside popular Calder classics, the exhibition aims to show the enduring reach of an innovative artist who, in a highly intellectualized art world, is finally becoming cool again.
Calder’s first shot at cool started early in his life: His dad, a well-known sculptor, and his mom, a talented painter, encouraged him to create from a young age. He studied engineering before enrolling in New York City’s Art Students League in 1923. In Paris a few years later, he created his minicircus and experimented with wire portraiture—a segue into more intricate sculptural ideas, namely his famous mobiles and stabiles. (Those mobiles dangling over baby cribs? Yep, inspired by Calder, whom many credit with inventing them as an art form.)
In the 1930s, he received his first public art commissions, and the next two decades saw extreme productivity and a number of important exhibitions. By the ’60s, he’d achieved international acclaim, turning his focus to large-scale commissioned works, such as Flamingo. In 1974, when the bold steel sculpture was dedicated—along with the Universe mobile—Chicago put on an extravagant circus parade; Calder rode atop an ornate 40-horse Schlitz bandwagon down State Street; and Mayor Richard J. Daley deemed it Alexander Calder Day. (The sculptor died in 1976.)
But the past few decades saw a distaste for that playful, popular appeal in the art world. Like Middlebrook, Nathan Carter, another contemporary sculptor participating in the MCA exhibition, recalls a general sense of rejection: “When I went to art school in the mid-’90s, having an interest in Calder or anybody from that particular generation was completely taboo,” he says. “Most work at art schools is being made in relation to philosophy and psychology or things like that. You’re more likely to have a discussion about like, Hegel, than about the way something looks…. So a lot of curators take an academic approach. I approach work more through my stomach and my eyes.”
However, MCA curator Lynne Warren says she noticed a shift in this antagonistic attitude over the past three or four years, when she started seeing contemporary artists who were unabashedly referencing Calder and other modernists. Rather than simply offering homage, they were taking his ideas to the next level. Carter, with his playful, free-form sculpture, and Middlebrook, with his nature-related mixed-media works featuring found materials, are two such examples. Their sculptures are handmade, lighthearted and refreshingly direct. “A lot of artists came up in a world where everything was about needing to understand the social context in order to understand the works,” Warren says. “I think directness is something that’s very appealing in our age of information overload.”
Warren points out that the contemporary artists in the Calder exhibition also capture the sculptor’s joyful spirit. “For many years, the main tenor of what’s considered ‘important art’ has tended to be art that’s very serious and deals with issues that are tough and disturbing,” she says. “But this generation of contemporary artists seems to be less cynical and more directly involved in their materials and finding beauty, joy and exuberance in creating things.”
Indeed, Middlebrook says there’s nothing he loves more than working in his studio. “Calder had a real love of practice,” he says. “And I’m like that, too.”
The exhibition opens Saturday 26 and runs through October 17 at the MCA (220 E Chicago Ave, 312-280-2660).
What does Calder’s Flamingo look like?
Pedestrians speculate about Alexander Calder’s famous Federal Plaza sculpture.