If you live in Los Angeles, a world class retrospective exhibition not to miss is “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” on display at the Resnick Pavilion at LACMA through July 27. If you are not familiar with Calder, he is one of the first artists to explore the kinetic side of fine art. He is known for his mobiles of colored bits of metal, and is even credited by some as creating the genre of mobile. Surprisingly enough, this is Calder’s first major exhibit in Los Angeles.
Alexander, who was known as “Sandy,” was born July 22, 1898 and died November 11, 1976. His work was strongly influenced by early exposure to both Joan Miro, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship, and also Piet Mondrian. Like both these modern artists, Calder’s palette was restricted to bold, pure, primary and secondary colors rather than tints, as well as separate hues of black, white and grey. The natural colors of unpainted materials such as bronze casting (for example, Fake Snake, 1944, a serpentine form that balances the “snake” on its pointed “tail”) and wood (for example, Gibraltar, 1936, a block of walnut shaped like the famous rock dissected by a flat disk-like surface, like a witch’s hat, punctuated with small, spherical white balls frozen in a state of potential motion) are the only exception to this palette.
During the time that Calder was active, the Cold war was at its peak. While artistic movements in Russia were dictated by Stalinist ideology, and artists who did not conform were “purged,” artists in the United States were free to explore and invent their own style. These artists were largely unaware of the role that the Central Intelligence Agency, notably Tom Brady, played in promoting their work among European intellectuals. While it seems, on the surface, that the Modern formal movement in art was or is far from seriously politically relevant, an argument could be made that the issue of repression of artists, whither through indifference or the Gulag, is only one half the equation. The society wherein artists succeed in transmitting whole, paralinguistic meaning, to Shamanic ends, by their own, at best undiscovered and secret means, is destined to survive. So essential is the (too often thankless) role of the artist. In the compositions of Piet Modrian, for example, he was attempting to “liberate” the primary colors from traditional ways of seeing based on a strict hierarchy within the intersecting realms of vantage point and meaning. What looks like a childish concern with red, yellow, and blue squares, in his case, is actually a sophisticated avant-garde progressive sociological expression, allowing, as Maslow would proclaim, rather than building, the “good society” long germinated in the Dutch tradition.
Calder, raised on alternately east and west coast (in Philadelphia and Pasadena, as well as Oracle, Arizona) by loving parents who encouraged his early experiments with bits of wire, and never attempted to stifle the natural urge to serious playfulness, along with Pollack, were American poster boys of the Paris-located, CIA-backed, international Congress for Cultural Freedom, which produced the Twentieth Century Masterpieces Festival from April 30 – June 1 of 1952 with not only participating major visual artists and the MoMA, but also nightly classical music performances from 62 modern composers, in addition, but not limited to, ballet. Between May 16th and 30th, round table debates and public lectures were held on “Isolation and Communication,” “Diversity and Universality,” “The Spirit of Twentieth Century Painting,” and “The Future of Culture.” (American journalist Janet Flanner derisively and publicly referred to the event as a propaganda effort.)
Calder’s work, perhaps more than any other artist, deserves to be liberated from its historic symbiosis with clandestine operations. (I could not confirm a rumor I’d heard that he was once on a CIA watch list.) When you look at his work in context of moneyed, one could say, irrelevant or inappropriate, influence, it seems to lose a purity or secular spirituality-Art for art’s sake-that the intelligentsia, the “true believers,” have long associated with the avant-garde. In books and photographs, Calder easy to underestimate as just a Kandinsky, Tanguy, or Miro given mass or substance. But when I went to the LACMA, and walked among the work, the reality of Calder’s magnificence began to impress me. (The larger questions: How is isolation and communication utilized in the successful survival of individuated genius? How can “great” universal freedoms be expressed in relation to diverse audiences? Why, how, not when, did the spirit of twentieth century painting effectively “give up the ghost?”)(The personal question: “How can an artist avoid being used politically without his knowledge and consent, particularly when engaged in active discourse re: the larger questions, and without abandoning humanitarian duty?”) While we all learned as children that “paper beats rock,” Calder definitively triumphed as a sculptor over painting. And sculpture versus painting is much more fun to play than Spy versus Spy, isn’t it?
I can’t think of any other American Modernist who is so essentially modern and simultaneously post-modern. Walking among the Calders, I saw mobiles suspended in front of colored (flat) wall panels, pre-dating Rauschenberg’s attempt to break the barrier between sculpture and painting by a decade or more. I saw maquettes (small scale models) for large works installed in places as far-flung as Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Kanagawa, Japan. (Wikipedia lists no less than twenty-two states and eighteen countries that are home to large-scale public outdoor work.) But what intrigued me the most were his intimately scaled mobiles, drifting and turning at a snail’s pace from the currents of air created by the visitors passing by and the museum’s air conditioning vents. If the work could be seen as a metaphor for contemporary society, it could be said that relationships between persons, between ideologies, between countries, are always in a delicate state of fluxus, the parts always re-positioning to maintain an ever-changing balance. As motion separated 19th century pictures from 20th century pictures and forced painting to redefine itself as a form of personal expression rather than literal representation of reality, so Calder’s moving sculptures have traveled through time, re-positioning themselves effortlessly, from avant-garde, to iconic.
The Calder exhibition runs through July 27, 2014
Also at LACMA
Sam Doyle: The Mind’s Eye
Art of the Americas Building, Level 3
May 3, 2014-August 17, 2014
Sam Doyle was born in 1906 on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, the center of the region’s Gullah community, where African influences thrived. He began making paintings on cast-off sheet metal and wood panels in 1944; most were portraits of people and events important to his community. He displayed the paintings to the public in the yard of his clapboard house. By the time Doyle retired in the late 1960s, his history lesson had evolved into the Saint Helena Out Door Art Gallery. In 1982, Doyle was featured in the seminal exhibition Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which introduced the islander’s impassioned artwork to a broader audience that included artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who collected Doyle’s work, and Ed Ruscha.
Known for a wide-ranging palette of vibrant colors, Doyle’s approach to painting can be characterized as gestural figuration. The artist composed his figures sign-like and painted in a style that is flat and frontal. The industrial or even architectural materials on which he painted also suggest this reading. Doyle’s works are to be read both visually and literally, as many include painted words that he added to further inform the viewer about this subjects, who were not just subjects of interest but unique personalities. The portraits in this exhibition primarily depict residents of Saint Helena, though they also include important figures from the wider world of entertainment and sports. All are testament to Doyle’s reverence for the spirit of individuals and the culture of his community. (source: LACMA)