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At the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, everything comes down to the wire.
The material is twisted and looped to shape noses, eyes and ears. It’s even used to hang sculptures from the ceiling that drift in the air and cast shadows on the walls.
“Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” highlights a lesser-known side of the 20th-century artist renowned for his abstract, twirling mobiles. Throughout his prolific career, Alexander Calder produced numerous images of himself, his friends and notable pop culture figures. Often, however, these works take a backseat to his celebrated mobiles, guest curator Barbara Zabel noted.
“This is the first show 35 years after his death to really zero in on his portraits,” Zabel said.
While the exhibition is narrow in its focus, the art on display is not. Calder worked in a variety of mediums, from pencil sketches to sculpture, to create his evocative and playful portraits. The exhibition’s most stunning pieces are the faces Calder made by bending and twisting wires.
“Critics didn’t know what to make of them,” Zabel said. “They recognized it was a new language, but what kind? Was it sculpture, fine art or caricature?”
The exhibit explores those multiple dimensions of Calder’s artistic vision and delves into his creative process. The wire sculptures reveal Calder’s radical style of portraiture, which he deemed “drawing in space.” Many of Calder’s subjects are also shown in sketches or photographs, allowing an inside look at how he transformed people into wire form.
Instead of envisioning his subjects as solid figures, Calder created transparent likenesses using loops and spirals. These whimsical sculptures, particularly those hanging from the museum’s ceiling, showcase Calder’s technical skills. With the hanging portraits — reminiscent of Calder’s famous mobiles — viewers are invited to see the shadows the wire faces cast as part of the works themselves. Calder’s interest in motion and the silhouettes of his portraits, Zabel said, render his subjects’ identities as constantly in flux.
“Traditional sculpture worked with mass, molding terra cotta, carving wood and stone marble,” Zabel said. “Here, there is no mass. He leaves the work transparent.”
Calder twisted wire into portraits of stage stars and sports icons, friends and fellow artists. His 1936 “Babe Ruth,” made of galvanized iron wire, portrays the baseball superstar not as an athlete scoring a home run, but as a disembodied head. Here, Zabel noted, Calder envisioned Ruth “almost as if the head is the baseball itself.”