This morning, I attended a preview of the new main-floor exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy,” which features sixty Calders and work by contemporary artists simpatico in spirit. Laura Pearson’s done a fine job with the show in this week’s Time Out Chicago; here I’ll add some thoughts of my own on an artist whose work I’ve long loved and admired, and never once thought too playful or simplistic to take seriously.
Maybe that’s because of my dance background—talk about a genre some think too playful or simplistic to take seriously. A fabulous tradition I enjoyed while living in Montréal was attending the outdoor dance party on summer Sundays, Piknic Electronik, underneath his brilliant stabile, L’Homme (1967), in the park on Île Ste-Hélène. Arching over the mass of sweaty dancers and overexcited children, the sculpture felt like the benevolent parent of a fragile herd. Calder’s work, his famous mobiles especially, is distinctly dancerly; as laid out at the MCA—Lynne Warren curated—they’re presented in a single room. Enough air circulates to nudge the unfixed elements into subtle drifts. The image one is presented with upon entering the gallery is that of an English garden’s tangle wrought delicately in glass, steel, some bronze and bold color. The pieces overlap each other, making some stabiles appear to be trunks supporting the “branches” of the hanging ones. Take in the scene long enough and you’ll notice the entire room move. It’s an immersive experience of space saturated with clarity and optimism. Warren calls it “impeccable,” and I think she’s right.
In the opposite space are the contributions by the seven living artists, each of whom Warren says could’ve warranted his or her own solo show. It is strong work, by and large, and never too far a stretch to understand the inclusion or connection to at least one of Calder’s types or periods. Perhaps most directly indebted is Nathan Carter, whose BRAVO LIMA UDON ELEPHANT (2009), hangs in the museum’s entry lobby. One of the five artists on hand to speak to their work, Carter describes his creations in a way that matches their energy. Walking up to RADAR REFLECTOR ORIGIN PETIT CALIVIGNY GRENADA (2009) and TRAVELING LANGUAGE MACHINE WITH #3 FREQUENCY DISRUPTOR AND DISINFORMATION NUMBERS STATION (2007), he matter-of-factly declares, “This is a radar reflector,” [Gestures wildly] and this [Gestures wildly] is a traveling radio station.” He says his connection to Calder is a “misreading” that aligns with his interest in misreadings and communication in general. He’s a guy who imagines the letters of a text message floating in a jumble up to bounce off a satellite, then back down to fill the recipient’s phone. The works—two painted a Calder 2.0 cerulean—have the wackiness of his delivery, but also a pleasing visual balance that matches the engineered equilibrium of Calder’s multi-part constructions.
Mirroring the elegant wilds of the Calder room, Kristi Lippire’s Hanging Garden (2006) is a recreation in cut metal of every plant in her Los Angeles garden. Outside on the museum’s back terrace is a standing sculpture, Balloons (2008), that first appears to be concrete balls on a steel branch, but is revealed to be light enough to sway in the breeze. (“I don’t like to make anything I can’t carry,” she says. “It’s just a rule I have.”) She seemed surprised when I told her I thought it gave the work a sinister tone—once I realized the mortar balls were hollow, I imagined them to be galls that could burst on touch and spray infectious spores. This led to a conversation about how boring most tombstones are.
It’s tempting to go into similar detail about the work of Martin Boyce, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aaron Curry, Jason Meadows and Jason Middlebrook. Cruzvillegas’ Bougie du Isthmus (2005), created in Calder’s Loire atelier; Middlebrook’s graffitied live-edge wood panels; and Meadows’ repurposed-material standing pieces comprise the far side of resemblance to Calder’s aesthetic, and are (to me) thus more satisfying to consider in relation. Boyce’s heavy space frames and Curry’s brightly-painted, slot construction figures are so similar to what lies across the hall that one sees little more than just evidence of influence in a show whose greatest strength is dialogue between past and present.
Middlebrook’s From the Forest to the Mill to the Store to the Home to the Streets and Back Again (2009–10), an MCA commission, hangs over the junction of the two spaces, a monstruously-huge mobile that shows the match of weight between a stretch of Michigan log and a burst of scrap wood. It’s like Calder, but via Doris Salcedo and Thomas Heatherwick and, the longer you look at it, the more questions it asks, and the more it feels like the transgenerational line of inquiry this show aims to be and is.