Balboa Park Exhibit Shows the Many Faces of Calder
By Jeff Britton
This may not be the most appropriate time to indulge in jewelry. But the recession notwithstanding, there is no harm in having a vicarious thrill, especially when the jewelry is by famed sculptor Alexander Calder.
The ongoing exhibit (through Jan. 3, 2010) at the San Diego Museum of Art is no ordinary display of baubles, bangles and beads. On the contrary, Calder’s often ridiculously oversized objects are made of the simplest of materials.
Forget about diamonds, emeralds and other precious gems. Picture instead brass or silver wire, ceramic remnants and colored glass. Yes, one of America’s foremost avant garde sculptors — whose works grace many a downtown — is, at heart, a rhinestone cowboy. But the effect is anything but ordinary.
“It’s wearable art,” said Dr. Julia Marciari-Alexander, the exhibit’s local curator, along with the Calder Foundation in New York and the Norton Museum of West Palm Beach, where the show originated. “Some people find it too theatrical because it doesn’t enhance you as much as it wears you.”
Calder’s jewelry was part of his sculpture-making practice. In 1929, the year he met his wife Louisa James on a transatlantic voyage, he was thinking about jewelry as more than a sideline. From the beginning, they were for sale, not just gifts to his intimate friends, though many were indeed bestowed for special occasions.
Perhaps it was his love of Louisa, she of the stuffy Boston Brahmin clan that produced writer Henry James, or maybe it was the influence of his Bohemian circle in Paris that included Picasso, Miro, Duchamp and Chagall. What creative muse made him transfer from mobiles to “stabiles,” a word coined by Duchamp in the new language of the surrealists?
The real language of this crowd was marked by whimsy, a commodity in short supply during the Great Depression. Consider brooches big enough to take over your entire chest and sharp enough to make hugs dangerous. Of course, who hugged in the dour 1930s?
Then there are beautiful paradoxical shapes such as a fish with legs, a pair of spectacles made of twisted brass wire that would actually impede vision, and belts of wire, raffia , wool, leather and silver.
They quickly became the rage among the smart set. New York arts patron Peggy Guggenheim sported a pair of “don’t-mess-with-me” earrings on the grand canal in Venice. Georgia O’Keeffe wore one of his creations, which if adorned with turquoise, would appear to be a Navajo creation. And Jeanne Buñuel, wife of the famous Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, proudly wore a brooch made of brass wire, colored glass and a mirror fragment in steel.
Perhaps the greatest single repository of his quirky jewelry was his wife Louisa’s dressing table. A Medusa bracelet of brass recalled her untamed hair and was just one of many gifts over the years to mark birthdays and anniversaries. Louisa’s family was less than thrilled that she had taken up with an artist and, perhaps, this was a kind of compensation as well as a fervent expression of his love.
Calder drew from many sources in antiquity, designs that evoke ancient Greece or Rome. Then he fused them with the whimsy of circus figures, a passion from his childhood that he turned into an adult enterprise. Often to pay the rent, he would set up a wire circus in his apartment and charge admission.
Much of Calder’s jewelry was inspired by a trend among the surrealists to create automatic drawings, art that was based on the Freudian and Jungian fad that everything originated in the subconscious. This took the shape of elaborate bracelets that spelled out the loved one’s name, rings with initials, and abstract shapes that often echoed the linear and three-dimensional aspects of his sculptures.
“We think about how traveling exhibitions can complement our permanent collection and we don’t take them if they don’t enhance our core mission,” explained Marciari-Alexander. “Our strategy is to get people to come to traveling exhibits and discover our own excellent collection.”
True to form, an accompanying exhibit called “Picasso, Miro, Calder” down the hall does just that with Miro’s soaring “Solar Bird,” a sensual bronze sculpture, as the centerpiece. Surrounding it are mixed media Picasso works that include hand-painted terra-cotta tiles, pastels on cardboard, ink and gouache drawings on paper, and etchings that recall Calder’s whimsical shapes. Or is that the other way around?
Two gorgeous Miro lithographs of golden plumes, his oil paintings and a bronze torso of a woman join Calder’s own lithographs. It’s a great sample of the permanent collection indeed. So when you feel the need to appreciate the outer limits of jewelry-making, or you have guests who appreciate fine art, this exhibit and the museum in general is one more excuse to head over to Balboa Park.
For more information, call (619) 232-7931 or visit www.sdmart.org.