Arts: Was Alexander Calder Always Great?

Imagine that you are a great baseball player at the end of your career. And that magically you are able to get everyone to remember only the best moments and to forget your poor performances, hitless World Series appearances and personal disasters, like that bar brawl.

That would be cool. It would elevate you to the heavens. You would literally seem perfect. Wow. Decent.

The artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) worked with geometric forms – primarily rectangles and squares – throughout his mature career. I always have considered him to be one of the handful of legitimate artists in the so-called ‘modern art’ mold of the 20th century and have always noted that I have never seen a bad Mondrian painting.

It could not be that he never made one because, after all, he is human. Finally I figured out the likely reason. It is because Mondrian was hardly recognized during his lifetime; he had his first public exhibit two years before he died.

So my Nikitas Theory is that with advancing age Mondrian was able to throw out all of the mistakes that he made over the years. They were never seen in public. He was like the baseball player magically editing his career.

Because as artists grow older they generally can see the mistakes that they made when they were younger. Like all people can do that, in whatever field in which they are working, even in raising their own children or in their business careers or personal relationships.

But many artists are stuck with their mistakes. Because their work has been in the public domain for much of their lives; they cannot withdraw a bad painting or all the images of it that are out in the media. This is particularly true with 20th century artists who have lived in a media-driven world.

The painter Frank Stella (born 1936) is a perfect example. He has composed his work out of geometric and quasi-geometric forms and was famous very young, by the late 1950s. And unlike most artists Stella made his best and most intelligent paintings right at the start.

But for decades since then he has made hundreds of terrible paintings and sculptures, very decorative and gaudy but very commercial, that have sold well because Stella is “famous”. And those paintings are a concrete part of his resume. He cannot withdraw them or escape them. Most Stella paintings after about 1965 are terrible. You can look them up all over the internet.

I refer to Stella as King Kong of the Lobby Painters because his hideous, oversized paintings decorate the lobbies of far too many New York skyscrapers.

In my estimation these paintings taint Frank Stella. I think that he would have been better off retiring at age 30. Yet he is still around in 2013.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “A doctor buries his mistakes. An architect can only recommend that you plant vines.” And despite all his great work Wright too made mistakes and mediocre work throughout his career, probably to the extent where he would have wanted to plant huge bushes in front of some of his houses. Or maybe even a wall.

Thinking about all this I recently received as a gift a book about the sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and started to look critically at his oeuvre. I determined that despite his great reputation that he did indeed make some mediocre work.

The art still is valuable, of course, because it is “Calder”. But there are knowledgeable people in the arts who will warn you about Calder sculptures that are not so great and who will put a much higher value on the really good stuff.

So I decided to pick a work that I consider to be Classic Calder and to play off of that for comparison, as a demonstration for the purpose of this essay, to show readers who may not be involved in the arts how to look critically at art, even at art that you may have little knowledge of.

Thus I have chosen one of Calder’s “mobiles”, this one from 1967 when Calder was 69 years old. It is called Three Discs in the Air. It really is Calder at his best although he had made many superb “mobiles” since the 1940s. It is here:

Calder’s mobiles are valuable both monetarily and artistically because first he made some exceptional ones that were the high-water mark of his artistic production, and second because he originated the very idea of the mobile, a set of forms hanging from the ceiling, capturing flight or weightlessness like no other art before or since.

In my view this concept, along with flawless execution, made Calder who he is. His mobiles are his most specific, original, individualistic and noteworthy contribution to art history.

Just look at Three Discs… wonderful. Order, proportion and harmony. It is light and playful. It uplifts you just to look at it. It makes you smile but you don’t know precisely why, and that is its genius.

Observe its exquisite sense of balance. The point at which it is hung from the ceiling is the tiny loop on the long arm just to the left of the bigger red disc. It is not quite at the center so the mobile hangs in a delicate equilibrium. The whole thing is skillfully done and surely required much thought and experimentation.

Three Discs demonstrates a superb composition. Its arcs are delicate and graceful. The lines are the perfect weight for the overall composition – not too fat and not too thin. Calder took every form into account.

It floats untethered from the pull of earth. The black and white forms are in a way recognizable but in a way they are not, as if Calder is posing a riddle in his own language. We have seen them somewhere before but we cannot figure out exactly where and we really don’t care. It is just fun to look at how they interact.

Meanwhile the ‘known’ forms – the circles – offer us a contrast, a challenge, a conflict with the others, but a nice conflict. The circles are like lollypops. They make us feel good. They are “happy”. In fact the whole artwork is happy and light as if to reflect a happy maker. Because Calder was known as a playful man. Even physically he had a ruddy Santa Claus-like presence.

Simply put Three Discs has what all real artists seek – a natural grace that reflects God’s divine principles of form.

This mobile is just an artwork but in a way it is everything. It represents the whole universe but at the same time it represents one man’s individual vision. Three Discs has all of the characteristics of great art. There is no downside to it.

It has been said that artists – and by that we mean painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, playwrights etc. – reveal to us “the essence of things” or “the significance of things” in whatever format they are working.

And through Three Discs Calder is expressing to us a vision about form, about forms, and about how we perceive form and forms. It is not direct; it is roundabout, metaphorical, idealized, metaphysical and most significantly universal. The forms could be appreciated by anyone in any nation. Or even by an alien from another planet.

Calder’s best mobiles are some of the most exceptional works in the entire history of Western art, which started in 480 BC with the Ancient Greek sculpture called The Charioteer, what I like to call the First Great Artwork of Western Civilization.

So I started to think about Calder and his past. He was born in Philadelphia to a father who was a good sculptor. Meanwhile Calder’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923), was a very famous sculptor in his day who created the behemoth William Penn bronze (36 feet tall) that today stands atop Philadelphia city hall. It is here:

Notice the scale, the people at the bottom. Now compare William Penn to Three Discs in the Air and you can see that both are highly accomplished, each in its own right and style.

So now let’s look at another Calder work and compare it to Three Discs and to the William Penn bronze because that will give you some insight into what makes “great” art and what makes art that is lower in stature.

Above is a Calder sculpture called Red Bottom from 1972. It is only about 20 inches tall and it would hang on a wall. And of course we are supposed to think that it is priceless because of its maker.

But just compare Red Bottom to Three Discs. Can you see a difference? Look back and forth at the two pictures. There is a big difference in the overall quality of the work, in the thought that went into it, in the composition, in the weight, in the delicacy, in the balance, in the harmony, in the precision of the forms.

If you can see the difference then you are a perceptive person, like a good art critic should be. Because Red Bottom appears rushed, cramped, even somewhat clumsy, even as if it might have been made of leftover scraps. It has none of the tantalizing diaphaneity of Three Discs. It truly is a minor Calder sculpture.

That is my opinion anyway. Do you agree? Do you see what I see?

Red Bottom is like the baseball game where the star player strikes out. Three Discs, on the other hand, is like the game where the legendary shortstop grabs a ball out of the air with a dashing leap, or the prolific hitter lofts a home run over the stands, like superhuman magic.

Now compare Red Bottom to William Penn.

No contest, friends. The elder Calder takes the prize easily. William Penn is refined, erudite, studied, composed and carefully controlled. There is no mistake about the intent or the skill of the artist. Red Bottom looks haphazard in contrast, almost like an afterthought.

So indeed Calder did make lesser works. And interestingly he made Red Bottom toward the end of his career when he should have known better.

Now consider another aspect of Calder – his intentionally child-like art, or what I call Frivolous Calder.

To understand it you must know Calder’s history. He first became famous in Paris in the 1920s for work that his grandfather surely would have considered superfluous – tableaux of circus figures, like children’s toys. You can look them up on the internet. Just type in ‘Calder circus’ to your search engine.

The Paris modernists embraced Calder and his circus works. Because the modernists loved to thumb their noses at traditional artists like the elder Calder.

Now here is a work by Calder that I consider to be Frivolous Calder. This is a small painting called Untitled from 1973, when Calder was 75 years old. Throughout his career Calder made many paintings like this and I could never understand why he made them until I thought more about him.

My theory is that from his earliest circus figures on, one part of Calder believed that so-called ‘modern art’ should contravene every ideal and discipline of thousands of years of historical art. In short, to be frivolous. 

Thus throughout his career Calder made things that were intentionally child-like. This comes out of Picasso who once said, “When I was young I could draw like Raphael. It took me a lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.”

This is a quote made for public consumption by a master manipulator named Picasso. You hear it all the time. But first, Picasso could never draw like Raphael. And second he could draw like a child when he was a child.

So Calder is taking a page from the Picasso anti-art playbook in frivolous paintings like Untitled (1973).

On the other hand Calder rose to great heights with his mobiles and other works which were very mature and that represented a refined mind of the highest order. So you have Frivolous Calder and Serious Calder. And to my mind, Frivolous Calder detracts from Serious Calder’s significant reputation just as Frank Stella’s bad paintings detract from the good ones.

Now here is another magnificent Calder work, one called Speed from 1969. It is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. This is Serious Calder. It is 40 feet tall (notice the people at the bottom).

I love this work. It is another of his great sculptures, a triumph of elegant, integrated form.

I have my theory about it, which is that Calder produced large-scale artworks first by making a model. And so he would have refined the model, and would be sure to take the time and effort to refine the model because he did not want to spend all that time and effort and material and money making a big artwork that was a big mistake.

On the other hand Calder surely made the small Red Bottom sculpture as he went along. It probably was not thought out ahead of time and conceived as a whole. It was a linear process, just adding one piece to the next. It looks as if it was made very quickly, unlike Three Discs which certainly required much thought and experimentation to get the proper balance.

So why did Calder go to these extremes, from the mature works like Three Discs or Speed to the child-like paintings like Untitled (1973)?

You can never be sure, but it could be that Calder was so immersed in the universal praise that he was receiving for his talents that he somehow considered himself invincible, that anything he touched was golden.

So who was the real Alexander Calder? Was he the modernist hercules, the serious maker of formal masterpieces? Or was he the child-like savant who wanted to put a stick in the eye of every artistic tradition?

I certainly prefer Serious Calder and history does too. Yet even in his serious vein, he made mediocre sculptures like Red Bottom.

But then he produced an ongoing series of frivolous artworks like Untitled (1973) that to this reviewer truly distract from his achievement.

It is too bad that Calder did not edit out these lesser works and give us just his Greatest Hits, of which his career is composed of many.

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