Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles
Through January 6, 2019
By Lorraine Heitzman
Calder: Nonspace, the Alexander Calder exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, is a gorgeous, concise look at thirty of Calder’s stabiles and mobiles made between 1939 and 1976, the year of his death. Organized in conjunction with the Calder Foundation, and with an installation designed by architect Stephanie Goto, Calder’s sculptures retain their modernity, looking both fanciful and oddly elegant in this beautifully realized show.
With the exception of five large sculptures in the courtyard, Calder’s black sculptures are on display in the South Gallery that Goto has transformed into a luminous white cube. All distractions have been removed, save for the remnants of the floor’s original mosaics. A white scrim suspended over the length of the ceiling hides the skylights, effectively filtering the light and creating a contained, non-interrupted space in which to view the work. By accentuating the volume and proportions of the gallery, Goto activates the sculpture and space in ways that are artful and architectural, bringing insight to the idea behind Nonspace.
Sandy Rower, Calder’s grandson and President of the Calder Foundation, explained that the title of the show originated from a James Jones essay from 1963. Jones was particularly sensitive to the way Calder manipulated space, which he dubbed “nonspace”. In much the same way painters might refer to and use negative space, Jones believed that Calder was able to activate space with his sculptures by calling attention to that which wasn’t there. But in contrast to the idea of negative space having substance, Jones had the impression that nonspace was, in fact, intangible. Viewing the work at Hauser Wirth, positive shapes and nonspace have equal billing and are wholly dependent on each other.
Part of Calder’s genius was his ability to conjure three dimensions in his work through two dimensional shapes, wire and rods. Rower remarked that this lack of physicality was integral to Calder’s real subject, the universal effect of energetic forces. While most of the sculptures here are static, there is the possibility of movement inherent in the mobiles and a few of the standing mobiles, too. Whether or not they have the capacity to move, all the work is energetic, thrusting and reaching with great conviction.
Nonspace isn’t the only interesting aspect of Calder’s work, though. Besides the exploration of movement and space, there is also plenty of his trademark humor. It is embodied in the fanciful curves, whimsical balancing acts and occasional allusions to human figures and organic forms. Because many of the sculptures stand upright, either on tripods or more substantial supports, they have an anthropomorphic quality. In Feuille d”arbre which stands in the courtyard, the sculpture is still figurative, even if the title refers to a leaf. In many instances, it looks as though there are outstretched arms and legs firmly planted on the ground. From some angles, other sculptures have faces. But these Rorschach interpretations are only part of the story. Rower claims that Calder did not see himself as an abstract artist in the sense of interpreting and abstracting the natural world. Instead, he invented his forms, preferring, one supposes, to seek inspiration from his imagination.
Calder’s work often feels extemporaneous, and indeed his sculptures were made that way. In creating his mobiles, for example, he did not work from plans; rather he sketched directly onto the steel with chalk and built his work in piecemeal fashion, adding shapes as he went. The artist’s hand is very apparent in all his work, from the welds on his maquettes to the whimsical shapes of the elements that decry geometry. Calder’s minimal palette also maximizes the hand-drawn shapes. When the sculptures are painted black (his favorite color), the organic forms are emphasized and the few spots of red, yellow, white, and grey become exclamation points in this otherwise monochromatic show.
Perhaps Calder’s greatest gift was his ability to use simple forms to create complex relationships. In work that is static and kinetic, precise and loose, Calder intuitively understood how to balance every element. The balance he achieved was, of course, both figurative and literal, and this exquisite show provides the perfect framework in which to view his remarkable sculptures.