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Monday, August 22, 2011


MODERNISM REDUX: Alexander Calder and his Successors

Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy
Exhibition currently at the Orange County Museum of Art

Little Face (c. 1945)

The Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art exhibit in Orange County, which, as I write, has only a few more days before closing, is an illustration of the influence of Calder in the contemporary, so-called Post Modernist era of our time. (Regarding the artificiality of the current distinction between “Modernism” and “Post-Modernism,” see my blog post for June 20, 2011). I would suggest that Calder’s influence on the contemporary artists shown in the exhibit derives not from the highly abstract mobiles that have made Calder famous, but rather from the aspects of his work that show the playfulness that I have dared to describe as the ‘tinker’s art.’ Included in this phase of Calder’s work are such pieces as Little Face (c. 1945, above) and Calder’s Circus of 1926-31 (below). I venture to say that as Modernism ceases to address the larger philosophical issues that arguably gave it birth, such as the Death of God and the Artist as Subject, it begins to confine itself to the narrower world of the actual art-work itself, a form of art for art’s sake, as well as to the artist’s skill in the fashioning and molding of materials and media, which is a tinkering with matter. It is, I would argue, a Modernism Redux.

Modernism: Designing a New World

Poster from the Corcoran Gallery of Art

To clarify the meaning of Modernism in this context, I quote the definition given by Eugene Lunn in his book Marxism and Modernism (London, 1985, pp. 34-37, and cf. my blog post of June 20, 2011), which broadly characterizes the movement as expressing the following philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations:

“‘1. Aesthetic Self-Consciousness or Self-Reflexiveness.’ The process of producing the work of art becomes the focus of the work itself: Proust, of course, provided the definitive example in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

‘2. Simultaneity, Juxtaposition, or “Montage”,’ The work loses its organic form and becomes an assemblage of fragments, often drawn from different discourses or cultural media. Cubist and Surrealist collages come to mind, along with the practice of cinematic montage developed by Eisenstein, Vertov and other revolutionary Russian film-makers.

‘3. Paradox, Ambiguity, and Uncertainty.’ The world itself ceases to have a coherent, rationally ascertainable structure, and becomes, as Hofmannsthal says, multiple and indeterminate. Klimt’s great paintings ‘Philosophy’, ‘Medicine’ and ‘Jurisprudence’, commissioned for the University of Vienna but rejected because of the scandal their dark and ambiguous images represented to Enlightenment thought, exemplify this vision.

‘4. “Dehumanization” and the Demise of the Integrated Individual Subject or Personality.’ Rimbaud’s famous declaration ‘JE est un autre’ (‘I am another’) finds its echoes in the literary explorations of the unconscious inaugurated by Joyce and pursued by the Surrealists.”

[Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, (London, 1985), quoted in Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, St. Martin’s Press, 1989), at pp. 12-13].

Both “Modernism” and so-called “Post-Modernism” share two of the characteristics articulated by Lunn. I suggest that the apparent evolution of Modernism into “Post-Modernism” in the course of the twentieth century is little more than a reduction of the scope of the Modernist artist’s preoccupations. The Modernist artist’s previous focus on points 3 and 4 of Lunn’s definition becomes subsumed in a preoccupation with the craft itself, as characterized by Lunn’s points 1 and 2 of the definition, and the larger philosophical issues of Modernism are abandoned for the sake of a form of aesthetic play. Art becomes pure Surface when all we want to know is Surface.

Jackson Pollock, Number 8

Abstraction in the aesthetic is dehumanization. This has been true since the wars between Iconoclasts and Iconodoules in the Byzantine Empire, and the eventual triumph there of non-figurative art under Islam, where Art was purposively de-humanized, the figure of man or animal banished, in the name of Religion. It is not that Abstract Art refuses to address questions of deep human interest, which it does. It is not inhuman Art. Rather, it aims not to depict the human figure, or any figure that may be distinctly and instantly grasped by the human eye as empirically and rationally recognizable forms in real space: the forms of man, fauna and flora, and man-made objects. Abstractions are forms without the visible and immediately comprehensible meaning which our real world would provide them, and which hence suggest a realm that is beyond sensible understanding. In Modernist Art, it was probably born with Wassily Kandinsky’s speculations about the relationship between Painting and Music. It became Art without Words.

The Calder exhibit in Orange County is mostly an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s classic non-figurative Mobiles, but there are also shown works of his that are figurative, and which suggest an affinity to the later trends in Pop Art, and to what is now known as “Post-Modernist” Art. It is in this “tail” of Calder’s work that one senses the derivation of the contemporary works which have been included in the show.

Calder’s Mobiles

[I was not permitted to photograph any of the works in the exhibition. The following works are not all represented in the show]

Calder’s mobiles are abstractions, but in movement. This is Calder’s principal contribution to Abstract Modernist Art. Rothko’s paintings move as well, within their color fields, but they are not abstracts. The color fields are exactly what they are, as empirically perceived. They beckon the mind towards abstraction, but they are empirically observable color fields upon geometric forms, and therein lies their aesthetic appeal. In Calder’s work, the color fields are uniform and do not move within themselves. They are also discreet. Calder’s shapes, forms and colors, come alive in the context of their movement, which is what constitutes their “freedom” and hence their joyfulness.

In Nineteen White Discs (above), for example, the steel connectors are part of the whole image, clearly visible because of the neutrality of the white color on the discs. The entire sculpture, whether in movement or in stillness, is a vast abstraction. When it moves, its balance is the focus, as well as the dance of the forms, where the steel structure is mostly static and the white discs dance around it. It is total abstraction, but in movement. There are no comparable abstracts in Modernism.

Calder as Tinker

Calder’s relationship to Pop Art, and there is one, is visible in his playfulness (“Circus” is discussed below) and in his figurative work, such as Little Face c. 1945

in Bird, (coffee cans, tin and copper wire) c.1952, below:

and in Lobster Trap and Fish Tail, 1939, below:

In these works we see something we recognize, but it is fashioned in a playful manner, in the tinker’s manner, and their colors and the use of scrap materials (Bird is made of coffee cans, tin and copper wire) point to their origins in Cubism and to their future in Pop Art. The distance between Calder’s Bird and Rauschenberg’s work is no longer too great.

Calder’s ‘Circus’

Alexander Calder, Mr. Loyal, Ringmaster (Monsieur Loyal) and Lion and Cage, from Calder’s Circus (1926-1931) Overall Wire, Cloth, Buttons, Painted Metal, Wood, Metal, Leather and String. (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Here the playfulness is an illustration of a reduced modernism. When Art has nothing further to say about the world, it plays with itself. The circus is on film: Calder playing with the toys he has fashioned, the toys made of scraps and wires, the tinker playing with his trinkets.

The contrasting heaviness of our contemporaries

The Exhibition defines the work of the contemporary artists shown as derived or influenced by Calder's. If it is in fact derivative, it is remarkable for its similarities to what I have called the ‘tinker’s art’ in Calder’s work, as well as in its significant difference, which is its heaviness, in contrast to the airy lightness of Calder, and, in some cases, a peculiar figurativeness. I dare say that it is more Pop Art than Modernist Abstract Art. As if the post-modernists had picked up from Calder only his most reductive elements, that in Calder which is all surface: the playfulness of the tinker.

Contrast Kristi Lippire’s Hanging Garden mobile, (below) with the light airy mobiles of Calder. There is a heaviness to this sculpture that makes it difficult to imagine it moving at all. As well, Jason Middlebrook’s Green and White Warbler (below), is a sculpture that appears top-heavy from afar.

Kristi Lippire, Hanging Garden, 2006, copper, steel, brass, galvanized steel pipes, spray paint and epoxy.

Jason Middlebrook, The Green and White Warbler, 2008, acrylic on wood, and steel, cast concrete plastic bottles.

The colors droop from the steel lines in Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Bougie, (below), as if they sought the ground. They are heavy and listless.

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Bougie du Isthmus, 2005, fishing rods, scarves, and wire grill.

Nathan Carter’s Traveling Language Machine (below) is obviously intended to be figurative art. The similarities with Calder’s work are superficial. We have here, again, Art with Words. And the same is true of Martin Boyce’s Fear Meets the Soul, (below) which shows a desiccated caricature of an individual facing off to an abstraction, presumably the Soul. Art with Words: words which hearken back to the project of early Modernism, namely, to express the existential quandary in which mankind has been left after the death of God.


Martin Boyce, Fear Meets the Soul, 2008, steel, powder-coated steel, acrylic paint, altered plywood leg splint designed by Charles and Roy Eames in 1942.

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