Exhibition Review: Calder in Abstraction at LACMA



Three Quintains

Calder in Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art explores more than forty quintessential works of the late Alexander Calder from the mid 1930s until the 1960s.  Of particular interest are Calder’s hanging mobile stabiles, which demonstrate unique intricacy and delicacy in modernist artwork.  This was the first Calder exhibition for LACMA and indeed marks an important history with the museum.  Calder’s sculptures demonstrate the beauty that art and engineering bring to life through the fusion of metal, wire and strings.  LACMA’s Calder in Abstraction successfully displays the artist’s iconic pieces in the context of movement in space through the use of ambient lighting and a curved backdrop.

Before the Calder showcase could be put on display, LACMA authorized architect Frank Gehry to reconfigure the hall in a more appropriate fashion.  Gehry’s circulated design helps to draw the viewer’s attention towards the works.  Curved, flush colored walls make it easier on the viewer to capture the movement of non-linear, abstract forms of Calder’s sculptures.  Gehry’s decision to cover up the sky lighting and use installation lighting instead is another crucial element that also enhances a softer atmosphere for viewers.  This controlled lighting allows for shadows of the hanging mobile structures to be cast upon the walls.  My favorite part of the entire exhibit was the use of these lighted displays and the positioning of different sized sculptures next to each other.  LACMA effectively creates a warm ambience for viewers while simultaneously allowing up close examinations of Calder’s intricate and detailed works.

The movements of Calder’s hanging stabiles seem to conceptualize space in three- dimensional form.  Even more idealistic is the use of motion that Calder displays in his works.  In other words, while Calder’s smooth sculptures are configured in a stable design, they are not confined to a glass box or portrait.  As LACMA curator Stephanie Barron best describes, “Calder’s mobiles are hanging, kinetic sculptures made of discreet movable parts stirred by air currents, creating sinuous and delicate drawings in space” (Barron 4).  The rhythmic gestures and organic composition are by far the most beautiful aspects of Calder’s artwork.  Visitors, however, were not allowed to bring in fans or other devices that might damage the installations.  Unfortunately, my friend Jonathan had to learn this the hard way as he was given a stern warning by one of the security guards, after he began intensely blowing on one of the mobile structure.  This again reminds viewers that while the stabiles are meant to catch air currents, they are not invincible to the full forces of Mother Nature.

Other Calder sculptures were not suspended from above.  Specifically, an untitled piece from 1949 had only one side resting on a platform while the rest of the sculpture was completely levitated.  This remarkable balancing act demonstrates Calder’s meticulous approach to his artwork.  As Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight suggests, “this is sculpture whose enduring fascination rides on the articulation of the curvature of space through time” (Knight 3).  Larger non-mobile structures such as La Grande vitesse allowed viewers to explore the use of dimensional space, although we were not allowed to walk through.  While most of Calder’s metal works were black, this 1969 sculpture was painted bright red, adding to the diversity of the exhibition as a whole.   In addition to free flowing form, a common theme amongst many of the pieces and the exhibit in general was how the displays seemed to be teetering on the edge of their own platforms.  In other words, one touch or flick would surely knock them down.  Even with Laocoön, Calder’s 1947 piece, which was mounted to the floor, the feet of the sculpture were sharply pointed in a manner that made it seem almost impossible to be freestanding.  Again, this demonstrates the mastery of Calder’s scientific approach to his works.

On display outside in the LACMA courtyard is Calder’s fountain entitled Three Quintains (Hello Girls).  Unfortunately, I was not able to see this in person.  However, it is important to note that LACMA commissioned Calder to build this colorful project as part of the museum’s opening in 1965.  It was one of the first Calder structures to be permanently installed in California, and in this manner, Calder has kept an important connection with the museum and the surrounding community.  The fountain allows viewers to enjoy a dazzling display of water works swirling around the orange and red hues of the circular structures, which, like Laocoön, are also freestanding.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art publicly presents the wide breadth of Alexander Calder’s modernist works.  The exhibit is a strong example of art at a very interactive level and the overall quality and condition of the pieces displayed is quite impressive.  Calder in Abstraction will be on display until July 27, 2014.  For pricing information and hours, please visit the LACMA website.


Barron, Stephanie. “Calder and Abstraction: Form Avant-Garde to Iconic.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA, 24 Nov. 2013. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <http://www.lacma.org/sites/default/files/Calder-and-Abstraction-press-release-11.7.13.pdf>.

Knight, Christopher. “Review: LACMA’s ‘Calder and Abstraction’ a Wonder of Curved Space.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <http://articles.latimes.com/2013/dec/17/entertainment/la-et-cm-lacma-calder-review-20131217>.

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