Essay: No longer stylish, but not forgotten, Calder art turns 73 this year.
By Alonzo Skelton
From a reading of “Sculpture Under the Influence” by Marcia E. Vetrocq
Art in America magazine, October 10, 2010
Sophisticates living in New York and Los Angeles had been exposed to the modern arts since their inception at the beginning of the century. But imagine yourself as an uneducated but wily farmer or a carpenter living in the back roads of a mid-south state of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, or Arkansas, where the “new” arts travelled slowly. In the hills and hollows of those proud hillbillies of the 1950s, photographic realism reign supreme as the only “legitimate” art form. Monumental sculpture depicting war heroes and early American explorers lie scattered throughout Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city. Rodin’s The Thinker dominates the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus. Amateur art observers hold the works of Rembrandt as the pinnacle of the visual arts—and Norman Rockwell is his successor. On their occasional glimpse into the abstract arts via popular national magazines like Life and Look, the response is typical: “That’s not art. My six-year-old daughter could do that!”
In this scenario, Picasso is grudgingly accepted as a producer of bizarre graphics, but only because his fame preceded exposure to his works. The adults around you see Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky, as con-artists who duped a bunch of dumb Yankees into believing that they were selling “art,” but they and their peers know better. They are not dupes. Art, the adults in your life tell you, is about technical expertise in the rendering of reality, and not about splashes of paint, colorful geometric shapes, or formless interpretations of reality.
Some of the soldiers who had fought in France in World War II received initiation into the mysteries of the modern art movements, and brought that knowledge home with them, creating cracks in the monolithic front against non-representational images. However, the man-on-the-street in working class America continued to see those images as mere cartoon or simple workshop puttering.
Into this environment of old-world immigrant values, a national publication dropped a bomb. A photograph of Alexander Calder’s Lobster Trap and Fish Tails (1939) stirred a debate that would in time transform those simple skeptics and make art centers of many of their small crossroads towns and villages.
It is mid-1950s, and the first baby boomers revel in the new art as a rebellion against their parents’ preference for stodgy realism and somber colors painted “within the lines.” I was a war baby, a few years older than the early boomers, when those images of Calder mobiles came into my home with the mail and introduced an entire generation to an accessible form of art. The colors of Piet Mondrian, another of the “Yankee” artists held in contempt by the working class, had jumped off the canvas, taken new forms, and moved with a room’s air currents. A child cannot paint a Rembrandt, but she and he can make a mobile. And they did. Colorful mobile sculptures sprang into life, hung from ceilings in thousands of grade-school art classes across the country. Colorful blobs decorated refrigerators across fly-over country, and when those baby boomers reached their teens, they decorated their rooms with colorful posters bearing no resemblance to the representational graphics of their parents.
A March 1998 article in the New York Times (Roberta Smith, “Art Review: All Calder, High and Low”) recreated those early years, before Calder, too, became “establishment” art, and was in turn vilified by succeeding generations. There, courtesy of the New York Times, I learned that the connection between Mondrian and Calder that I had intuited had a basis in fact. Calder had “apprehended [abstraction] in a flash, during a 1930 visit to Mondrian’s studio in Paris” (Smith). Mondrian had entered into Constructivism when the movement was banned in its native Russia. Constructivist artists took their movement to Europe, to Mondrian, and thence to Calder. I gave in to a flush of pride at having seen the connection between the two great artists as a child.
I experienced a similar pride when Braniff Air Lines, who made my adopted city of Dallas as its home, commissioned Calder to paint a number of its passenger jets in his bold, swirling colors. I had left the fields and forests of Coral Ridge, Kentucky to arrive in an electric environment in which Calder’s art flew overhead every day; in a city dotted with buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei; and had begun construction on an art museum that would soon compare with the great museums in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.
Each time I come across references to Alexander Calder, I recall the publication of a photo of Lobster Trap and Fish Tails, the sensation it caused in rural America, and the explosive growth of copy-cat mobiles hung in elementary-schools across the country.
Alexander Calder died in 1978 at the age of 78. His career spanned nearly fifty years, and his works ranged from the miniature to the monumental. But he is best known among an entire generation for illuminating their imaginations.