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Three Iconoclasts

"Femme et Oiseaux dans la Nuit" by Joán Miró (1945).

Miró, Calder, and Arp at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

European artists Joán Miró and Jean (or Hans) Arp and American Alexander Calder were friends and artistic associates in Paris in the 1930s and beyond. They were all revolutionaries in their way. In the case of the Europeans, revolutionaries of a particularly polemical sort. In conjunction with their artistic innovations, Arp and Miró were key figures in such manifesto-laden art world movements as Dadaism and Surrealism. Of course, they tried to get their American friend to sign on with them. Calder held back, however. He was wary of projects and labels, that they might limit his freedom, his artistic vision. But he turned out to be arguably the most revolutionary of them all. He radically reconceived the art of sculpture, which was from Cycladic time an art of solidity, stolidity, mass, weight—the measurable object of the physical force of gravity—and made it light, airy, ethereal, mutable by means of the least substantial ambient air current. He created a completely new and different type of sculpture, the so-called “mobile.”

Untitled by Alexander Calder (1947).
"Somersault" by Jean Arp (1942).

The three artists are the subject of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s current “Artists in Depth” show, featuring all (or nearly all) of the gallery’s extensive collection of their works.

The appropriate entryway work to the exhibit, which is in the subterranean passageway between the 1962 addition and Clifton Hall, is Calder’s wonderfully spidery mobile, all black except for three small primary-color elements, red, yellow, and blue, called Conger, in honor of early Albright board member and benefactor A. Conger Goodyear, who formerly owned the work and bequeathed it to the gallery. (Upstairs, in the original building, several gallery 150th anniversary exhibits honor Goodyear’s curatorial and collecting acumen as a vital factor in making the Albright-Knox into the modern art mecca it is universally acknowledged to be.)

During his European sojourn, Calder visited the studio of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, and on viewing some of his paintings in primary-color squares and rectangles suggested to Mondrian that he try to make the works “vibrate and oscillate.” Explanatory information to the present exhibit says Mondrian was “dismayed” at the suggestion (perhaps because he felt the works already vibrated and oscillated, that what he was doing with this work was inventing an art category, Op Art, that would not even have a name for another 50 years or so). Whereupon, Calder took up his own suggestion and set about inventing mobiles, at first motivated by mechanical apparatus, but then by the much more aesthetically satisfying combination of the principle of balance and air currents. (Mondrian seems to have gotten his primary colors fetish also from Mondrian.)

It was artist Marcel Duchamp who came up with the name “mobile.” For Calder’s immobile sculptures often in a similar vocabulary, Arp came up with the name “stabile.” One of Calder’s stabile/mobile combinations, Large Gypsophila on Black Spike, is on show here, but another even more iconic stabile/mobile owned by the gallery, Cone, named for the black metal stabile portion of the work, inexplicably was not on view the day I saw the exhibit.

The most polemical of the group was Miró, whose declared intention was to “assassinate” painting in the sense of what he saw as the bourgeois tradition of the art, and so came up with art of signs instead of scenes. The free-floating signs frequently had a surrealist dream imagery flavor, and frequently also a Calderesque flavor, as in one of Miró’s iconic paintings in the show, Femme et oiseaux dans la nuit, which features a black triangular support structure precisely reminiscent of the stabile portion of Calder’s Cone sculpture.

As methodology in his painting assassination project, Miró had recourse to chance effects and invented a technique called “automatic drawing,” the basic idea of which was to disconnect movement of the hand from activity of the brain. Several of the automatic drawing works are on view. As artworks, they seem more in the way of means than ends.

Arp also challenged the solidity and stolidity aspects of traditional sculpture with biomorphic forms, soft forms, even in gilded bronze, fetal forms, suggesting development versus full actualization of the sculptural object. And open-ended potential as to the ultimate actuality. Sculptural objects a little like stem cells. As in the enigmatic Homme vu par une fleur. Or the lovely l’Etoile, which is at once a star in the sky and a prima ballerina on pointe (just a bit off center, requiring available support by the male dancer).

Toward the end of his career, Arp made a trip to Greece, following which he eschewed his signature amoeba-reminiscent forms in favor of abstractive imitations of Classical Greek human figurative sculptures that at the same time harked back to pre-Greek Cycladic—but also abstract—human figures. Such as the superbly sinuous large-scale white marble Sculpture Classique in this exhibit.

The Calder-Miró-Arp exhibit continues through April 15.

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