Witty king of wire and string

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Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933, Whitney Museum of Amercan Art, New York

The best of Alexander Calder’s early sculptures lie at the crossroads between gaudy inspiration and lofty aspiration. Aroused by the atmospheres of the circus, the nightclub and the boxing ring, Calder performed ever more daring avant-garde feats, leaping from conventional realism to experiments in space and line. And even as he gradually left the real world of lion tamers and trapeze artists behind, he injected their energy, vitality and motion into his signature mobiles.

Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933, now at the Whitney, homes in on the crucial period when Calder transformed himself from illustrator to artist. It’s a fun, unavoidably flawed show that channels the artist’s exuberance and wry humour across the decades. At its heart is “Circus”, the cheery but ambitious multipart sculpture/performance (whic includes ‘Fanni, the Belly Dancer’, pictured) on which Calder built his international reputation. He hauled the piece across the Atlantic many times, first in two suitcases and later in five. The Whitney has faithfully piled that luggage alongside its contents as if he were about to come and pack it up again for another trip.

The son of two artists and grandson of another, Calder was bred for his vocation, though he started out as a mechanical engineer, working at various technical jobs before he switched his allegiance to painting in his mid-20s. He began studying with Ashcan master John Sloan at the Art Students’ League in New York in 1923, and he picked up his teacher’s fondness for the picturesque and pleasingly vulgar.

The Ashcan painters embraced the multitudinous city in all its mangy glory, and Calder gained work as a cartoonist and illustrator for the lurid and widely read National Police Gazette, tootling round the city and sketching amusing incidents in Central Park, Coney Island and, most tellingly, the Barnum-Ringling 3-Ring Circus. The keen drawings of seals, elephants, trapeze swingers and tightrope walkers conjure character and motion in a few elegant lines. The young journeyman had already become a wizard with a pen.

Calder arrived in Paris in 1926, intending to paint. But he quickly found his true métier as a sculptor, bending wire to shape drawings in space, twisting filaments that floated in mid-air and cast ghostly, dancing shadows on the walls.

The chanteuse and artists’ muse Kiki de Montparnasse posed for him and he caught her unusual beak-like nose and pouting lips. Many luminaries of the art scene sat before his pliers and their heads now hang at the Whitney.

The airy, open-formed portraits, so much more vaporous than marble busts or oil likenesses, swivel slowly in the galleries, as if looking around for a third dimension they had all misplaced. You can feel the thrill of a new toy, the melding of inventiveness and technique. And yet the context of the exhibition undercuts their radicalism. A newspaper clipping from one of Calder’s scrapbooks describes the sculptures as “resembling somewhat in outline the caricatures of a cartoonist”. So, was the use of wire simply a gimmick or was it, as they say in electoral politics, a “game changer”?

As long as Calder remained in Paris, his art never lost that tension between playfulness and profundity. “Circus”, which he began almost immediately on arrival, is a panoramic essay on blitheness, an avant-garde reworking of the puppet show. Animals and performers, assembled from wire, string, stuffing and patches of cloth, are furnished with mechanical components enabling them to move round a makeshift stage. With the artist at the controls, the imperious knife thrower would lift an arm and hurl swords in the general direction of his sexy assistant. When the pompous nincompoop finally hits her, a couple of medics scoot in on wheels, lift her on to a gurney, and scurry away. A lithe lion tamer snaps his whip and the fuzzy, overstuffed lion rears back on to his hind legs while aerialists swoop and dive above the net.

Calder presented “Circus” in his studio at first and then began touring the homes of wealthy collectors and future patrons. Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Frederick Keisler, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg all attended one of these soirées. By the end of his first year in Paris, Calder had earned the title “the king of wire and string”.

The Whitney does not, alas, attempt to recreate those performances, and “Circus” has become something it was never meant to be: an inert object. Instead, the museum offers clips and photos of Calder operating the piece. Other videos eerily animate the figures on their own – the strongman lifts his barbells and a belly dancer grinds her hips in the absence of any visible puppeteer. Creepier still are slightly overexposed glass-negative photos taken in the 1920s by Brassaï, which make the spectacle look like the scene of a crime.

In 1930, Calder visited Mondrian’s studio and came away rattled and exalted. “This single visit gave me a shock that started things,” he recalled. “Now, at 32, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.” But while abstraction quickened his pulse, it makes the Whitney’s exhibition stall, because Calder tweaked Mondrian’s austerity with two elements that were ingrained in his personality: movement and wit. Calder’s interest in making art move now became a mission. He fitted out his geometric sculptures with motors and springs, so that balls rolled, coils twirled, pendulum arms swung and miniature planets chugged along their little orbital paths. Ideally, a gallery would be filled with a whole choir of moving sculptures, a crazed choreography of mechanical parts; instead, the Whitney offers a video loop showing the gizmos doing their simple acts in sequence, one by one, while the real sculptures sit disabled and mute. It’s Calder without the juice.

At the Whitney, www.whitney.org, until February 15, after which the show will move to Paris’s Centre Pompidou

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