Another side of Calder
by Laura Bien
Counteracting the popular image of Alexander Calder as a whimsical wizard of elegant megamobiles, a nineteen-minute film of a Cirque Calder performance inadvertently portrays the artist as a doddery paterfamilias of a charming yet rinky-dink miniature wire circus.
Planned as part of the Institute for the Humanities exhibit of a collaboration between Calder and French poet Jacques Prévert, the film portrays a 1966 performance, for a Parisian audience, of the Cirque Calder, an ensemble of wire, metal, and cloth figures and circus props created nearly four decades earlier. Manipulated by Calder's hand or by simple, ingenious gears, cranks, catapults, and strings, two wire and metal horse-carriages race, a lion tamer puts his head in a lion's mouth, and trapeze artists swing, leap, and catch their partners' wrists.
The beaming, bearlike Calder seems so charmed by his circus figures that he doesn't realize the molasses-slow performance of clever yet tiny feats grows tedious. Nor does he seem to hear a subtle note of ridicule that underlies some of the audience's laughter.
This fascinating film recalls Thomas Wolfe's blistering, barely fictionalized portrayal, in You Can't Go Home Again, of a 1929 Cirque Calder performance in a New York socialite's apartment, when the novelty of the Cirque was a quaint, fashionable diversion for the well heeled. "It became painful," reads one passage. "People craned their necks and looked embarrassed. But Mr. Logan [Calder] was not embarrassed. He giggled happily with each new failure and tried again. It went on and on."
In addition to the film, exhibition curator Elisabeth Paymal plans to show Calder's sixteen preliminary circus drawings, a spiral metal pin and earrings, and books of Aesop's fables and nursery rhymes bearing the artist's enchanting, airy illustrations. Two illustrations for a fable entitled "The Spider" show a swirly spiral spider resembling the pin and an amusing drawing of a man's profile with a spider on a long thread of spider-silk just barely above his head. A chunky red
and yellow snake planned for the show is fashioned from kinked sheet metal. Hung with a small hidden weight, the snake's long, cursive tongue is a minimobile.
The exhibit's ostensible raison d'être consists of five planned cases showing different pages of Fêtes, Prévert's homage to Calder, which praises him and his work in lyrical, worshipful prose full of elegant metaphors. Calder, in turn, agreed to illustrate the book, and his blunt, bright abstractions (see above) offer pleasing shapes that, despite their simplicity, nevertheless radiate humor and joy.
The exhibit is on display on Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 8 p.m. (or by appointment) March 6 through April 7, in the Institute's Osterman Room in the basement of Rackham.
[Review published March 2006]