Museum of Contemporary Art sampling sells Alexander Calder slightly short

By Oliver Mosier

Master of the mobile, king of the kinetic, an innovator beyond compare. These labels only begin to define the genius of Alexander Calder. A small but definitive selection of his work is on display until August at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago.

While the exhibit only totals 15 pieces, they manage to encompass Calder’s artistic gamut. His classic wire-supported mobiles are included, of course, along with bronze sculptures, an ink sketch, and even a painting. Calder’s ability to create art from mundane objects such as coffee cans is also on full display. The only things missing from the exhibit are his enormous outdoor sculptures, which helped make him world-renowned.

A 1932 piece entitled Bird is made up of coffee cans, tins, and copper wire. That was Calder’s genius: seeking out beauty where most would overlook it, seeing promise when most would neglect it, and striving toward true originality. The movement intrinsic in Calder’s mobiles remains innovative to this day. The man behind the metal and wire was one of boundless creativity.

Polychrome and Horizontal Bluebird, a 1954 Calder creation, is beautiful. It possesses the true mobility of a bird as it sways back and forth in the exhibit. The colors range from the primary to the secondary, and the simplicity of the object is what captures the eye of even the most casual observer.

Satisfaction never came easily for Alexander Calder. Perhaps that is why he continued to push the limits of both art and technology. While he worked feverishly up until his death in 1976, he is probably best known for his monumental sculptures. (One such structure, Flamingo, is located in Chicago’s very own Federal Plaza.)

Retrospectives and exhibitions only begin to scratch the surface of his work. In the end, Calder’s work cannot be confined to the walls of any museum. His art is a part of the surroundings—and anyone who has ever visited the beautiful Storm King Art Center in New York can certainty testify to that.

Despite the beauty of Calder’s work, like many modern museums, the MCA can appear rather cold and bleak. The white walls and high ceilings could be perceived by some as reminiscent of a psychiatric ward. But speaking as someone who does not get depressed by the weather, I thought the sleet falling outside added to the experience. Museums are made for rainy days. Last Friday was just such an afternoon.

While the exhibit at the MCA may contain a little of everything Calder, I do believe that a full retrospective would be more fulfilling for the average museum-goer. In a show so small, omissions are made, and wonderful works and career shifts are inevitably left out. The exhibit only gives the audience a taste of Calder’s genius—but a taste, nonetheless. The use of movement in many of his pieces represents the fluidity and immortality of art. While Calder the man may be gone, his art, his mobiles, and his memory continue to flourish.