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Thinking in Wire

By Lee ann W. Custer, None

PARIS, France – An exhibition of Alexander Calder’s work could only mean dangling bits of wire painted in primary colors, and about a hundred little kids blowing on the mobiles, I thought. I was wrong. Well, partially.

This summer’s exhibition “Alexander Calder: les années parisiennes: 1926-1933” at Paris’s modern art hub in the fourth arrondissement, the Centre Pompidou, definitely had tourists huffing and fanning the sculptor’s hanging masterpieces, but the exhibition was not at all limited in scope to Calder’s famous mobiles. Instead, the eight main rooms of the show offer a very diverse and multi-media approach to Calder’s oeuvre that make the blockbuster Kandinsky exhibition on the other side of building look almost monotonous.

A large number of original sketches, films, and paintings supplement the primary focus of the exhibition: Calder’s wire sculptures, described as “drawings in space.” The industrial aesthetic of Calder’s visual gymnastics even seems unintentionally to compliment the exposed framework of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s architecture at the Centre Pompidou.

Calder’s sketches are simultaneously whimsical and technical. In a study for his work Circus, Calder draws a playful trapeze contraption, with his personal notes on how to create it: “Place lead weight on aluminum shelf, pull white thread, releasing weight, pulling phantom up on black thread.” Seeing the actual manifestation of Circus in the next room adds to the impact. The installation is an amalgamation of miniature circus figures: a lion in a wire cage and its long-limbed trainer in the circus ring, dangling trapeze figures, horses, elephants, camels, and of course, clowns.

The curatorial work in the gallery with Calder’s portraits is striking. Six busts in wire hang from the ceiling in front of a white wall. Spotlights shine on these three-dimensional contour caricatures, casting shadows on the wall behind. The shadows morph from profile to three-quarter to frontal views, as the wire busts rotate in space.

The exhibition also offers examples of Calder’s paintings, spurred by his visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930. The two artists must have had the primary color fixation in common: “Black and white are first – then – red is next – and then I get sort of vague. It’s really just for differentiation, but I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red,” Calder said. The show concludes with several examples of Calder’s more famous balancing act sculptures.

“I think best in wire,” the artist once said. Thank you for abandoning paints and canvas, Mr. Calder. You bring back the crafty, Lincoln-log stacking, mobile-blowing child in all of us.

Lee Ann W. Custer ’10, a Crimson arts writer, is a history of art and architecture concentrator in Currier House.

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