The Calder Touch - Pure Magic

He used talent and imagination on material that `serious' sculptors wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole

`THE Intimate World of Alexander Calder,'' at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum here, is pure magic. It's also a marvelous demonstration of where talent and imagination can lead if one isn't afraid to follow one's impulses and intuitions.

The more than 350 Calder originals here range from mobiles to kitchen utensils, humorous wire sculptures, paintings, drawings, jewelry, and toys - everything a ``serious'' sculptor wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

What other internationally acclaimed artist would make a metal latch to keep the family cat from raiding the kitchen cabinets with the same zest he might have for a monumental outdoor sculpture? Or take the time to make nose-masks, wooden bow-ties, toy animals, or free-form wire jewelry for friends, without lowering his creative standards?

Possibly Mir'o (who was a friend of Calder). Or Picasso. But they would have done it only occasionally. Calder, as this exhibition proves, did it all the time.

In fact, one is not surprised to learn from the show's richly illustrated catalog that Calder was seldom without a pair of pliers and a roll of wire in his pocket. He used them to make endless necklaces, bracelets, belt buckles, brooches, earrings, and finger rings for his many friends. And to make the extraordinary wire portraits and figure compositions that amaze viewers today with their wit and originality.

The exhibition is filled with these, but there's much more: tiny mobiles, including a set of five miniatures presented by Calder to his wife on her 50th birthday; freely rendered paintings depicting social and circus events; inventive household devices and kitchen utensils that never fail to amuse; large, decorative fish-forms constructed of wire and bits of colored glass; delightful running and flying birds made up of everything Calder could get his hands.

Why was all this assembled into museum show?

``The Intimate World of Alexander Calder'' was put together by Daniel Marchesseau, a curator at the Mus'ee des Arts D'ecoratifs in Paris, to inform the public about overlooked aspects of Calder's art - and also, one suspects, as a labor of love. It's the first American museum exhibition of Calder's work since 1976 and the first ever to emphasize the informal side of his creativity. Dorothy Twining Globus coordinated it, and Lee H. Skolnick Architecture & Design was responsible for its design.

Calder himself probably best summed up what it represents when he said, ``Above all, I feel art should be happy.'' And indeed, joy, life, vitality, and unadulterated fun pervade this exhibition and define it.

From the moment one enters the galleries, the only thing that matters is the wonder of life and the infinite number of ways human skill and imagination can give it new form.

What comes across most forcefully is Calder's total lack of creative inhibition. Even though he was the son and grandson of distinguished sculptors, he felt he had a perfect right to be himself.

No matter what he tackled - a monumental stabile for a public park or a tin-can toy for a child - he approached it with a completely open mind and as though nothing else mattered. In that, he had the freedom and concentration of a very young child - but also an extraordinarily sophisticated sense of style and order.

This is most apparent in his mobiles. Even the ones standing only three or four inches in height are so exquisitely made that they appear ``inevitable'' and perfect.

I wrote once that I didn't believe Calder had actually made his mobiles and stabiles - that he must have stumbled upon a large number of them growing deep in a forest. I still suspect that's true. It's the only way I can explain the unique identities of these works, their existence as a seemingly separate species of art.

By all means, see this show at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum through March 11, 1990.

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