The Whitney’s new show devoted to Alexander Calder’s Paris years in the 1920s reveals the young sculptor facilely mimicking all the art around him and producing an array of works which are not exactly art, more like toys, presents and party favors.
Calder’s childlike delight in the supple product of his hands produces repetitive cartoon wonders akin to Dr. Seuss or FAO Schwartz. A wooden lioness and a wire mule recall Le Douanier Rousseau. Small models of mobiles are right out of Francis Picabia and Vorticism.
Elegant drawings of shrews and rhinoceroses yield to yuckety-yuck pastiches: a wire woman with chess pieces for nipples, pigs copulating in a mess of wire. The exhibition includes a vitrine of actual toys, colorful frogs and cows to be pushed by the kiddies at the end of a stick. I doubt that these pieces threatened Braque or Picasso!
The fecundity of wire sculptures includes one of John D. Rockefeller playing golf and a London bobby wielding his bulbous baton. In the 1980s, there was a homeless Rastaman in Tompkins Square Park who sold stuff like this for ten dollars, deft animals spun from wire coat hangers. Right now, Broadway Windows Gallery on 11th Street has a clever exhibition by Steve Rodgers of wire coat hanger abstractions. Everybody does it!
I never liked Calder’s "Circus," trumpeted by the Whitney as its main attraction since the ‘60s, but you would have to be pretty low down and mean not to take minimal delight in Calder’s toys. Let me suggest that the Whitney allow visiting children to play with them on the museum’s floor. After all, Calder’s early amusements can’t be worth more than a few dollars apiece.
For the adults, this infantile show has but one true attraction: a stunning film of chanteuse Josephine Baker slinking around a boxing ring in a satin evening gown with far more originality than young Calder could muster. It is used to illustrate four wire sculptures Calder did of her, but Baker’s sexy moves and high, inviting warble send the kiddies, Calder among them, scurrying from her very mature playpen.
"Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933,’ Oct. 16, 2008-Feb. 15, 2009, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).