A day with Calder

All images courtesy LACMA’s site… no photography was allowed in the gallery.

A couple of weeks before I moved away from SoCal, I took a day off from packing to spend with a dear friend, and we caught the latest special exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – one of smaller works by Alexander Calder. LACMA’s group was a wonderful portion of work – enough to be sated, and not so much that it overwhelmed.

Calder 3

Most people meet Calder on a larger scale than can be exhibited in a gallery. His work graces a lot of big public spaces (hello Grand Rapids!) and are most easily identified by their ORANGE color, organic shapes, and their ever-so-slightly-spidery stances. The standing works are known as “stabiles” as counterpoint to the hanging “mobiles” that Calder also made.

This exhibition had a mixed group of smaller stabiles, a lot of mobiles, and several pieces that had elements of both – grounded but with parts that balanced in the air, and that moved gently with the currents made by we shuffling patrons.


While Calder’s large work can feel solid and serious, the small pieces are delightfully playful. They are perfectly balanced in a way that looks utterly effortless, each blade in a mobile perfectly placed in space. Some of the pieces felt quite refined, and others felt like they were perhaps early attempts at a concept, and showed more evidence of working out the puzzles of the design. My fellow viewers and I surreptitiously wafted our exhibition brochures and blew at the sculptures to get them to begin their dance for us. Several of the pieces gave me that great feeling of childlike wonder – when you’re a grownup, you’ve seen so much that awe seldom visits. I found myself happily grinning like an 8 year old as I watched the mobiles move. My favorite works were the ones that felt a bit like fish skeletons (I have an affinity for skeletons born of studying anatomy in a former profession). My friend Sandy was more taken with the pieces that were inspired by plant life (a topic close to her heart).


Just to note – none of Calder’s wire portraits were included in this group. If you get a chance to see some, take the time. They bring the linear aspects of drawing into dimensional space, and some of them have kinetic elements that add so much to the character (the portrait of Josephine Baker dances in space!)

Sculpture presents its own special problems in installation. Most of the time you end up with a large box of a room to work with, and the works get dotted around with hopefully enough space between them to walk. The difficulty in this is that there is seldom a way to look at one work by itself in isolation – there is always another work or people in the picture. This installation, however, was beautiful (LACMA’s images of it here). Each work had room to be enjoyed by itself, and most were installed against undulating backdrops that removed the delineation of “room” from the visual plane. I later found out that Frank O. Gehry designed the installation (read more about that here) – no wonder it was finely a finely tuned marriage of art and space! Several of the pieces were lit to emphasize the shadows cast by the moving parts. While all art interacts with its space, sculpture’s third dimension often brings shadow into play as an element that can also be used as part of the composition, and in this case it was beautifully shown.

If you want to learn more about Calder, I would highly recommend the American Masters episode on him, released as a documentary DVD that you can probably get from your library. The Calder Foundation also has film clips on their site. It’s worth seeing a little bit of the man in action to see his impish sense of play and whimsy.

And a last word about “no photos in the gallery.” Usually I find this utterly tedious… why not let people have that snapshot to jog their memory? Yes, yes… the establishment wants to sell their book… I get it. But really, I’m more for sharing the art far and wide – we make art to touch people. If the establishment wants to make some extra money, offer high quality postcards for a buck apiece… they are more likely to get a few dollars out of me that way. A lot of people can’t afford the book, or don’t want to read all the academic writing, and many tourists don’t want the weight of it in their suitcase. As for someone “stealing” the work? Thieves will steal no matter what – forbidding cameras won’t stop a determined thief. And having said all that… in this age of the smartphone, it was delightful to be in a space of people who were looking at the work and trying to interact with it, rather than documenting it (if you are trying to capture the moment, you are not IN the moment). Sandy and I had some lovely snippets of conversation about the art with other strangers, conversations that might not have been had if we were all snapping our phones. Food for thought…


2 thoughts on “A day with Calder

  1. Flash photography is often prohibited in museums and galleries to protect the work from light damage. It ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the artwork.


  2. Hi Teresa – I heartily concur with NO FLASH… and consider it a shame that a lot of people don’t learn how to turn that off on their cameras and phones. But I still think that we should be able to snap an image, and if not, buy a decent image on a postcard!


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