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Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Through January 4, 2015 

Shadows on a scrim dance like falling leaves in the softest breeze — that’s what you first see when you step inside this spellbinding Alexander Calder exhibition. Behind it is Calder’s Eucalyptus, all black leaves on wires.

The first great maker of kinetic art, Calder defied expectations about sculpture — starting with its sheer tangibility: mass, volume, gravity. His mobiles float and turn, as ethereal as shadows, their drowsy motion propelled by air currents. “Fed on air, they respire and draw their life from the tenuous life of the atmosphere,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote.

Calder and Abstraction (organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in collaboration with the Calder Foundation) traces the artist’s work from the 1930s, when he gave his heart and his engineer’s mind to abstraction, to the late 1960s, his heyday as a public artist.

In startling and winsome early works, biomorphic shapes drift before a panel (Red Panel) or inside a frame (Snake and the Cross), suggesting paintings come to life. They are kin to Jean Arp’s cartoony abstractions. Calder, radically, set the pieces of his compositions adrift.

Using counterbalances, open forms, and flat planes, he devised playful, spirited mobiles and stabiles (which stand on the ground) that moved with enchanting unpredictability. The stabile La Demoiselle takes a deep bow and then pinwheels out, its little flats on wires fluttering as if in the wake of that initial bend.

If some of the maquettes for Calder’s public works, such as the orange roller coaster La Grand Vitesse, feel tired, that’s because Calder, along with Henry Moore, set now familiar standards for public art. They take nothing away from the exuberance of his art, which as it moves conveys much in this life that we sense but cannot grasp.

Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts Through January 4, 2015