New York exhibitions range from airy mobiles to leaden objects. A chance to see Calder at his truest, most original, most elemental stage

ALMOST everyone likes Alexander Calder's mobiles. Even those who cannot take them seriously as art enjoy watching them dip and sway in response to a nudge, or prance gracefully at the instigation of a breeze. Of course, like everything else, they didn't come into the world full blown, but emerged step by step, mostly during the early 1930s, and shortly after Calder had begun to make a name for himself in Paris with his bent-wire circus pieces.

It was during that decade, in fact, that the Calder we now know first came into being. It was then that he switched from figurative sculptures to abstract constructions, made his first mobiles, and added hand cranks and electric motors to help set some of his works in motion.

In celebration of what he produced during those important formative years, the Whitney Museum here has assembled a small but highly significant exhibition of Calder's first abstract creations. There are 14 painted metal, wire, and wood pieces in all, including the revolutionary ``The Pistil'' and ``Universe'' of 1931, the prophetic ``Calderberry Bush'' of 1932, and the serene and already quite ``classical'' ``The Circle'' of 1935.

What we see here is Calder at his truest, most original, and most elemental, and without many of the delightfully entertaining features for which his later work is so justifiably famous.

In a sense, it's like seeing a favored tree without its foliage; it may not be as ``beautiful'' or as much fun as what we've come to expect from his work, but it gives us, on the other hand, a very clear picture of what is essential to his art and how it came into being.

It's so easy, after long and affectionate familiarity with the work of such figures as Calder, Mir'o, and Klee, to forget how truly revolutionary these artists' first attempts at art were - and how much thought, care, and imagination went into the formulation of their styles.

Each of these artists was a true original, a profoundly creative individual capable of fashioning a delightful, consistent, and totally self-contained universe out of the simplest and most ordinary of objects or devices.

In Calder's case, it was primarily wire, tin, steel, and little pieces of colored wood. Not much, but in his hands, enough to fashion some of the best and most fascinating sculpture of the 20th century.

I recommend this exhibition highly, not only because it presents a side of Calder we don't often see, but because it helps us understand how he evolved from one kind of artist to another to become the Calder we now recognize and admire.

At the Whitney Museum through Jan. 17. Art made of lead

Curators and other individuals who assemble group exhibitions often like to work within a theme. It can be a color, a medium such as pastel or linocut, or a particular stylistic approach. It can also relate to an activity such as fishing or flying, or elaborate on something as provocative as the Holocaust or the end of the world.

Hirschl & Adler Modern here has gone one step further by devoting an entire exhibition to lead - both the material in its solid form as utilized by sculptors and in one or another of its derivative aspects as they are used two-dimensionally.

Everything in ``Lead'' involves the material in one way or another - although the point has been stretched here and there to include drawings made with ``lead'' pencils. Its 47 works by 40 painters and sculptors run the gamut from the tiny to the monumental, from tentative studies to highly polished pieces.

The artists' names constitute a veritable Who's Who of those considered important or ``in'' in today's art world. Alphabetically, the list runs from Carl Andre, Jennifer Bartlett, Joseph Beuys, and Ross Bleckner to Susan Rothenberg, Joel Shapiro, Cy Twombly, and Chris Wilmarth. Mention anyone else particularly famous (Anselm Kiefer, for instance), or fashionable (Sherrie Levine), and they, too, will almost certainly be included.

The only problem is that most are represented by lesser, even, in some cases, decidedly trivial works that do neither their reputations nor this exhibition any good. There are exceptions, of course, and they tend to be real standouts. Jannis Kounellis's ``Untitled'' is a powerful piece, as are Twombly's ``Untitled, 1961,'' Ann McCoy's ``Isidi Sacr,'' and Jasper Johns's ``Light Bulb.'' I was also taken by Franz Graf's ``Untitled'' and Kiefer's two contributions - although the latter fall considerably short of what that artist is capable.

At Hirschl & Adler Modern, 851 Madison Avenue, through Jan. 16.

Masterworks: 1894-1987

The group show at the Barbara Mathes Gallery is much more varied and interesting - but then, it has the advantage of not being limited to one theme or period.

``Master Paintings, Drawings and Watercolors: 1894-1987'' is a mixed bag - both stylistically and in terms of quality - of an exhibition that includes a number of good to excellent works. Particularly noteworthy are Oscar Bluemner's large charcoal drawing, ``Expression of a Silktown,'' Marsden Hartley's ``Sea Shell by the Window,'' and pieces by John Marin, Jean Dubuffet, and Charles Demuth.

At the Barbara Mathes Gallery, 851 Madison Avenue, through Dec. 31.

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