“Wake up, Lynda, it’s time to go.”
About an hour later, we’re on the road. It’s 1977 and the group includes the legendary curator (and my mentor) Walter Hopps, Jean Stein vanden Heuvel, the patroness and author/editor and….me, a fledgling curator. Heading to Connecticut, we’re going to visit Julien Levy, the pioneering American dealer of Surrealism and photography, and his wife Jean, as well as the playwright Arthur Miller and Miller’s wife, photographer Inge Morath. It’s a pleasant drive, especially the final stretch along backcountry roads passing rolling hills, green pastures, fieldstone walls and quaint farms.
“Stop the car now,” roars someone (and quickly I realize that someone is ME). Brakes squeal, gravel flies as the three of us simultaneously figure out that we are about to pass a field occupied by a small herd of Alexander Calder’s stabiles. Monumental curves and angles of forms in red and black loom against the sky and nestle into the greenery of Calder’s property in the town of Roxbury. We have been so intent on securing interviews with the Levys and the Millers that it hasn’t dawned on us that we’d be entering Calder country as well. We get out of the car and silently pay respects, the sculptures conjuring the talent of the artist who passed away the year before.
Only recently did I realize that this long ago, but memorable, trip planted the seeds of my desire to someday explore Calder’s work. Visiting Levy that day was all about his relationship with Joseph Cornell because Walter and I had just embarked on serious research on his work. Coincidentally, Levy had also been Calder’s dealer for a time in the 1930s, and he was quick to comment on the issues he had encountered in showing Calder’s early motorized sculptures and his alleged admonition to the artist to figure out a more reliable way to create motion.
I haven’t been able to determine whether Cornell and Calder ever met through this mutual connection, but that’s actually irrelevant when you consider the core qualities and overriding challenges that they share.
Simply put, they engaged in a kind of cerebral abstraction — Cornell taking a metaphorical and symbolic direction, Calder pursuing a more formally-based path. They relished making things by hand from everyday and found materials, their natural inclinations toward this practice asserting leadership at a time when experimentation with nontraditional techniques, formats and materials in the 1920s and 1930s forever changed not just the nature of sculpture, but of art generally. Yes, they profited from the freedom to question and the embrace of accident and chance that their exposure to Surrealism afforded them. But I do not accept that their art ultimately exemplified the Surrealists’ advocacy of spontaneity, given the extraordinary degree of finish, formalism and intelligence that their respective works convey.
Both of these men were also humanists in the sense that in making art, they were seeking interaction with people physically as well as conceptually. Few of us can deny the desire to do more than peer into a Cornell box. Admit it, we want to pick it up, hold it, turn it, open it and make any moveable parts do just that. Whether we can handle a box or not, Cornell’s goal was to wake up our senses, our curiosity and our ability to explore and make connections. Similarly, it is false to deny that waiting to see if and how a mobile moves is totally satisfying; helping it move — touching it — are secret desires. Motion is performative, and whether you invoke the realms of theater, dance, music or even film, Calder designed his works for an audience — of one, of many, intimately and publicly.
This dichotomy between implicit and explicit interaction in their works brings us to their shared challenge — the on again, off again tendency to describe their art as playful, in the less serious and therefore less meaningful direction of estimation and impact. Dealer Julien Levy and assorted members of the art press in the 1930s did Cornell no favors in branding his objects “toys for adults.” Calder’s one-man, crowd-pleasing Cirque Calder and his early association with tinkering rather than the complexities of engineering and physics laid the groundwork for similar associations with toys and playthings.
To play is perhaps one of our most misunderstood behaviors. It’s not mindless — it has goals, outcomes and sometimes rules (if a game is involved) as it stimulates and exercises our imagination, curiosity, creativity and intelligence, often spurring us on to insight, inventiveness and experimentation. Play is also not without emotion. We experience the gamut: from anticipation and happiness to anger or discouragement, and on and through to excitement, competitiveness and even obsession. Play is engaging for each who plays (like the artist at work in whatever mode) and, at its best, it is also interactive, for those who play together (like artists and viewers, especially when artists embed this connective, outward intent in their work). Ultimately, play is serious, and in their own inimitable ways Cornell and Calder challenge us to embrace this aspect of our humanity.
I will never forget the drive down that Connecticut road. It took me on to many unimagined adventures in the arts, not the least of which has been the opportunity to offer “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” at PEM. And, yes, in case you are wondering, I consider curating a most enticing and rewarding form of play.
Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic runs through Jan. 4 at PEM.