Alexander Calder Show @ the Seattle Art Museum
You learn how incorrigibly playful Alexander Calder must have been from the 1961 film by Carlos Vilardebó, Le Cirque de Calder, now playing in a video loop at the Seattle Art Musuem as part of its exhibit of the Jon and Mary Shirley collection of Calder's work. The film is of a puppet circus that Calder performed for friends throughout his life. Calder's skills with wire and handmade contraptions are on display, as Calder makes the puppet performers and animals move and perform circus tricks. "Madame, Monsier," he calls out, in the voice of the puppet ringleader, when a new act steps up. Some of the wire-frame-and-cloth circus animals even leave behind poops, which Calder covers with sawdust and sweeps away before bringing in the next act.
Calder was born at the end of the 19th Century and he died over 30 years ago. Some of the work on exhibit is over 70 years old. And yet, the only thing in the show that seems dated is the film (and that is because of the film quality and tell-tale tinniness of the soundtrack, not the play it captures).
The show of hanging mobiles, standing mobiles, wire sculpture and jewelry is also a playground. And more is in play than the mobiles in motion: they are lit to cast strong shadows, and placed to be physically accessible from every (terrestrial) angle. The jewelry is under glass, as it should be, but the rest of the work is not. You are asked to not touch, but the fact that you can -- or might step the wrong way and be swiped by a fin of sheet metal -- makes the show fun. Even black circles on the floor, meant to demark the radial sweep of the hanging moblies (and thus no-go zones for pedestrians), contribute to the fun: I saw a mother and child chasing each other along one of the circles. But the main reason you do not touch the objects is because they are at work; and that fact relieves you of the duty of having to regard them as sacrosanct. (Pictured in this paragraph: Bougainvillier, 1947. Photo copyright © 2010 Calder Foundation. Used in accordance with the fair use guidelines on the Calder Foundation site.)
One has to think that the Shirleys are responsible for how humanely the show is laid out. It's awfully generous of them, not only to lend their collection, but to permit it to be shown in such an accessible way.
Calder in his Roxbury studio, 1944. Photograph by Eric Schaal. Copyright © 2010 Calder Foundation. Used in accordance with the fair use guidelines on the Calder Foundation site.
Although the work is fresh, particularly in the ensemble of this show, sheet metal is no longer a particularly contemporary artistic material. The passage of time makes Calder's material seem like construction paper, albeit that of a giant craftsman. Matisse had his large colored paper to take scissors to, and he laid the pieces out in two dimensions; Calder cut from sheet metal and wired his pieces to hang and balance in space and define a different kind of volume, an accessible interior.