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Art review: 'Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy' at Orange County Museum of Art

April 15, 2011 |  2:00 pm

Calder 10-5-4 1958 Even people who don't know art know Alexander Calder's art. Forever identified with the mobile, Calder gave sculptural form to currents of air.

He of course did much more in a long art-life that was encouraged from childhood by a sculptor-father and a painter-mother. But, formally schooled as a mechanical engineer, Calder had the tools, after he decided to become an artist, to bring seemingly effortless elements of balance and poise to bits of broken glass and plastic, chunks of wood and, most often, curved and painted metal plates suspended from a hanging system of interconnected rods.

Calder did not invent kinetic art. But, born on the cusp of a new century (in 1898), he made motion elemental to modern artistic conceptions. So thoroughly successful was he -- and so delightfully accessible to a general public often mystified by the puzzles of 20th century abstraction -- that today it's more common than not to find mobiles of every imaginable commercial stripe suspended over babies' cribs.

Perhaps that explains the most surprising aspect of "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy," a traveling exhibition that opened Sunday at the Orange County Museum of Art. Virtually all 22 sculptures by its seven younger artists are motionless.

Some are suspended from the ceiling. A few are fashioned with wire. Others are assembled in a manner that suggests a mechanical engineer's construction methods.

A couple even appear to have individual parts that retain the capacity to move, if push came to shove. Yet it's almost as if the equation between "Calder" and "mobile" is so complete and indivisible as to make any direct influence foolhardy and off-limits. The risk is less about being shown up by a master of Calder's caliber, since any artist worth his or her salt craves such challenges, and more about the threat of descending into the zone of baby's crib. Why even go there?

Boyce Fear Meets the Soul 2008 Scottish artist Martin Boyce engages Calder's legacy most directly, which might be why his "Fear Meets the Soul" is the only sculpture by one of the seven to share a room with a Calder mobile. Elsewhere, segregation is the norm. Calder sculptures occupy their own galleries, while the younger artists' works are shown singly or doubly in theirs.

Boyce is up to the confrontational task. He succeeds by playing against type.

Boyce's wire looks cheap or even salvaged; it's crudely twisted, attaching objects to three clunky rods. A perforated length of red metal, like something that might have fallen off a simple machine, hangs near the bottom, while a bent plywood splint of the type famously designed for wounded soldiers during World War II by Charles and Ray Eames is attached at the top. A compact black disk at one side balances an elongated, droopy splint shape at the other.

I suppose, given a strong enough blast of wind, that Boyce's suspended sculpture might move. But its stark, stolid contrast to the refined, gently twirling Calder mobile adjacent is very much the point. This is a hobbled mobile for our deeply damaged age.

None of that conforms to Calder, who began making kinetic sculpture in 1931. Soon he abandoned the cranks and motors that animated his first examples in favor of natural air currents, which give easy vitality to his organic Surrealist shapes. In a mobile, wire provides an elegant one-dimensional line for two-dimensional abstract shapes to be suspended in complex three-dimensional compositions that bring motion's invisible fourth dimension of time and space into view.

The remaining six artists merely brush by Calder's various precedents -- which isn't too surprising. However fine, he's not an artist whose work presses much on the current imagination. The only time I think of Calder is when I happen to encounter one of his works -- a situation that underscores a fundamental problem with a show like this: It narrows, rather than expands, our engagement with new art.

Curry Deft COmposition 2009 Aaron Curry's painted, vaguely figurative, interlocking panels of freestanding wood or metal owe as much to Picasso's famous public sculpture in Chicago (Curry went to school at the city's Art Institute) as to any of Calder's myriad plaza monuments. Abraham Cruzvillegas -- whose giant, playful semaphore is made from 28 fishing poles inserted into a wine rack and dangling decorative printed scarves -- is a straightforward assemblage artist working with found objects.

Nathan Carter draws in space with painted steel rods, but his letters and schematic communication towers have as much to do with Russian Constructivists in the teens and New York Neo-Dadaists in the '50s as with Calder's roots among French Surrealists. In Jason Meadow's "Pig Latin," the barnyard hogs formed from sequential, overlapping views of bent steel rebar compose a concrete pun on Cubism more than a reference to, say, the circus seal balancing a ball on its nose in a Calder standing mobile.

The copper plants and flowers in Kristi Lippire's "Hanging Garden" arise from long arms attached to a pole that's affixed to the ceiling, but it's less like a mobile than a neo-Surrealist chandelier. (A wall label says the piece was inspired by lighting fixtures the artist encountered in Guanajuato, Mexico -- elegant copper chandeliers made, I'm guessing, by craftsman Adolfo Alcocer.) The heavy chunks of driftwood Jason Middlebrook affixed to his "Wood From All Over the World Mobile" have finished their random seafaring  journeys, adding a certain dead weight to the work's repetition of very familiar ecological motifs of entropy and decay.

The show has been significantly trimmed from its debut at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where it was organized. A third of the younger artists' works did not travel; the 31 (of 56) Calder sculptures that did come to Southern California provide a good general overview of his work from the 1930s through the 1960s (he died in 1976).

Calder, though, is now mostly just part of the inherited language of Modern art. His sculpture's partial effects in subsequent artists' work is unsurprising, while a fragmentary nod (such as Middlebrook's or Curry's) doesn't tell us much about the younger artist's work. Save for Boyce, few of this show's sculptures seem determined to wrestle with him. Overall, the pairings feel like a forced curatorial fiction.

Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clement Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, through Sept. 4. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


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-- Christopher Knight

Photos: From the top, Alexander Calder, "10-5-4," 1958, painted sheet metal; Martin Boyce, "Fear Meets the Soul," 2008, mixed media; Aaron Curry, "Deft Composition (Deft Composition)," 2009, wood, silkscreen, steel. Credit: Orange County Museum of Art