Levity and Whimsy at Play in Calder Exhibition

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.”

In addition to the wire portraits, Calder’s paintings and drawings feature prominently throughout the exhibit. One particularly quirky piece is a sketch of playwright Arthur Miller, an impromptu portrait Calder drew directly onto the wall at one of Miller’s parties. In Calder’s portraits of friends, the artist always sought to entertain, Zabel noted. “His intent was to amuse, not to offend his sitter,” she said. 

In the final gallery, which showcases Calder’s late works, one of his famous mobiles hangs from the ceiling. It is a portrait of his friend, the cartoonist Saul Steinberg. The figure wields an umbrella, and clouds appear to follow him as the mobile twirls. The room highlights Calder’s move to abstraction in his later period and explores how World War II reignited his passion for portraiture. Zabel said the Calder house “became a special refuge” for many of his friends fleeing Europe during the war, inspiring Calder to capture their likenesses in wire and drawings.

The characters depicted in the exhibition run the gamut from presidents to pop culture icons, and Calder himself takes center stage. There are several self portraits on view, and a walk through the corridor brings the exhibition full circle. Here, viewers can find a very early self-portrait — from age 9. The crayon drawing reveals a young Calder at play, already surrounding himself with tools and building materials. The other self portraits on display span his career, with a more traditional 1925 watercolor hanging opposite a radical wire rendition of his head from 1968.

Throughout the exhibition, there’s a sense of levity to Calder’s works. For all the discussion in the captions accompanying the exhibition about identity and narrative, that playfulness is what viewers likely will remember most. 

“Such was the genius of Calder, the ability to infuse portraiture with probing acuity and humor,” Zabel said.

“Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” runs through Aug. 14 at the National Portrait Gallery. 

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