Like that of Edward Hopper, the work of Alexander Calder is a mainstay of the Whitney’s collection. Every few years, the museum trots out another exhibition that attempts to put a new spin on one of these two warhorses. (In fact, it held joint shows of Calder and Hopper only three years ago.) This year’s model focuses on Calder’s use of movement, the defining quality that cemented his sculptures’ place in art history. In 1931, Calder invented mobiles, graceful arrangements of wire—sometimes strung with weightier elements of metal and wood—so precisely balanced that a touch or even a light breeze sends the individual parts turning or swaying in space. They quickly became worldwide museum fodder, and their bastard stepchildren hang everywhere from airport terminals to babies’ cribs.
The Whitney devotes its entire top floor to 36 of Calder’s works, from early experiments with motorized parts—many newly restored and operational for the first time in decades—to a single stabile, the large freestanding sculpture The Arches (1959), to which a wall text gamely imputes “implied movement” because it looks different from various angles. The stars of the show, however, are the unmechanized mobiles—both the standing variety, with moving components sprouting from a base, and the famous versions suspended from the ceiling, which spellbindingly seem to float on air currents. The capacious open space of the exhibition adds to the feeling that these objects require room for action; one mobile even hangs over the adjacent café, visible through a huge cutout in the gallery wall. Selected works are periodically set in motion, either by a museum technician’s manual manipulation or by the flipping of a switch.
Calder’s art is long on charm and whimsy. His style combines a gentle abstract Surrealism with biomorphic forms cadged from Jean Arp and Joan Miró, but without their psychological and sexual charge. Some works here, such as Triple Gong (circa 1948), even make tinkling sounds, like particularly delicate wind chimes. But Calder’s mobiles seem short on content we can latch onto, save for a range of innocuous and often literal nature analogues: Hanging Spider, The Water Lily, Black Tulip, Aspen, Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry), the last a mobile featuring white circles. We can be forgiven for wondering what Calder has to offer us today beyond formal ingenuity (and tamed radicality). Despite the fact that Calder created most of the works in the exhibition during the 1930s and ’40s, there’s little evidence of a globe roiled by the Great Depression and World War II. Only an untitled 1942 standing mobile—the point of its rapierlike form jabbing a vertical line of black oblongs topped by a sinisterly glinting piece of blood-red broken glass—even hints at disquiet. This current resurrection of Calder’s quirky formalism seems at best a crowd-pleasing escape from the world’s troubles, then as now.