Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 13, 2018
Calder: Hypermobility, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 9–October 23, 2017
Installation view, Calder: Hypermobility, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 9–October 23, 2017; (photograph © 2017; provided by the Whitney Museum)

What distinguishes the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Calder: Hypermobility exhibition from other recent Calder exhibitions is its presentation of sculpture as performance art. Jay Sanders, the Whitney Museum’s curator of performance art, and his colleagues Greta Hartenstein and Melinda Lang advance the claim that, in order to be adequately apprehended, Calder’s sculptures ought to be seen and heard in motion or, as they would have it, in a state of activation. From the position of art historical argument, this seems so logical as to sound self-evident and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. However, in the museum setting, the implementation of this one, clear concept resulted in viewing experiences that managed to revivify the familiar work of this popular modern master. The special events that Sanders and his colleagues organized under the rubrics Performing the Work and Artist Projects demonstrated their claim to incontrovertible effect. For these events, select artworks were brought from the Calder Foundation to the Whitney Museum for the span of a day or a few days at most. The artworks were placed before small audiences in intimate, stage-like settings where they were then “activated.” This departure from convention allowed the sculptures to temporarily acquire attributes of the performing arts; the objects assumed the immediacy and time-bound properties of music and drama. Unfortunately, these remarkable performances comprised only one of the exhibition’s two components. The other consisted in a display of thirty-five sculptures on the Whitney’s eighth floor where the improvisatory and evocative elements of the activated artwork were scarcely available. The thirty-five sculptures merely illustrated a concept that is better conveyed in the special events venue. So stark was the contrast between these two components that Calder: Hypermobility was a confusing exhibition. It consisted of a physical site and a calendar of events that were disconnected and unalike.

Of the two types of activation on offer in the exhibition calendar, Performing the Work events afforded the more powerful and clearer presentations of Calder’s work. The sculptures were spotlighted in darkened space, like actors on a stage, and for the duration of the performance these historical artifacts seemed to invade the present. The Artist Projects events diminished this strange power of the artwork. There, the pieces were enlisted in the service of the guest artist’s games and thereby obscured. These observations were drawn from the varying activations of Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, a work from 1932/33.

The mobile was lent by the Calder Foundation to the Whitney Museum for four days in late July 2017. On the twentieth of that month, Alexander S. C. Rower introduced the piece before a small audience in a Performing the Work event on the third floor of the museum. Rower is the artist’s grandson and both president and chairman of the foundation. His short and lively introduction included reminiscences of his grandfather and of his grandfather’s studio as well as a description of the mobile’s chance-based design.

Rower explained that the mass of the heavy, iron sphere is so much greater than that of the small, wooden sphere that a light tap to the larger one sends the smaller one spinning in wide orbit. Calder’s decision to set objects in the path of the small sphere is the intervention that loads the piece with its playful charm and unusual capacity to generate the flickerings of a narrative. Rower confessed that even if the sphere’s collisions with the empty soup can, the champagne bottles, and the gong produce a wonderful, Cagean sort of music, it was, in his opinion, the anticipation of a collision that invests the work with its hypnotic power. And, indeed, when the introduction was over and silence descended over the room, Rower gave the heavy sphere a nudge that sent the little sphere flying and the audience watched its widening trajectory with bated breath. At first, the little sphere spun over the top of the flotsam on the floor, and although slight in mass, it seemed heavy with the promise of incident. Soon enough, the sphere descended toward the floor. It turns out that the smack of a little wooden ball against an empty soup can is an uproarious delight. Everyone in the audience laughed at the occasion. Maybe it was the humble clank of everyday objects that elicited this common response. Or, perhaps, it was the gentle farce that was made of intentionality by the precision strike of a random target which proved so satisfying. It was like watching a stray M&M roll the entire length of a subway car. In any case, it’s pointless to name the source of this humor; the unpredictable renderings of the performance were wonders in themselves. The ping of the wooden ball against an empty champagne bottle produced a softer, poignant note, as if it were a remembrance of parties past. And on more than one occasion the sphere drew ellipses in the air that skirted around the necks of bottles as if on purpose, as if to tease and taunt the anticipation that Rower had spoken of beforehand. It was vexing and thrilling to see. As the energy drained out of the system, the little sphere made shorter and shorter flights through the air. Eventually, it assumed the period of a pendulum whose movements back and forth evoked the blinking of an eye, a fading heartbeat, the patter of small, bare feet. I thought of my father and of friends absent from the room.

Later that same day, Christian Marclay and Okkyung Lee used the mobile as the centerpiece of a sound performance in an Artist Project event. The theater space on the third floor was reopened to the evening audience and the bottles, gong, and soup can stood in the same positions where Rower had set them earlier that afternoon. At the appointed hour, Marclay and Lee entered the theater with the solemnity and purpose of priests. Lee began to produce anti-music notes on her cello while Marclay set the mobile in motion. Over the course of their hour-long performance, Marclay slowly added more and more objects to the floor: empty tall boys, various lengths of copper conduit, a cookie tin, a colander, and more. The flabby, flatulent notes that Lee occasionally coerced out of the strings of her cello were sometimes followed by the jarring notes of bottle rockets in flight. She strode through the space as a dancer might: barefoot, emotive, half-antagonizing the audience. Marclay’s pacing around the mobile was slow and deliberate, too. He maintained the cool reserve of the artist as thinker. The portrayal brought to mind Bruce Nauman’s studio exercises in boredom. The antics were amusing and adroitly tuned to the audience’s taste and tolerance for provocation, but they seemed like the resuscitated avant-garde gestures of a bygone era. It was annoying and yet impossible to imagine how the artists might have done otherwise. But where the fifteen-minute Performing the Work activations had unforeseen cathartic effects that produced laughter and even melancholy, the Artist Project activation was overfull of declarative gestures and moody posturings. It was a fascinating and bewitching disappointment that was worth every minute of attention. 

Framing and focusing the audience’s attention are the very tasks which the eighth-floor display refuses to do. Most of the thirty-five works there have the pronounced hand-crafted quality, the ebullient wit, and the strong color combinations that characterize Calder’s signature style, but as a whole the assembly seems disorderly and cramped. Some sculptures appear to have been included in the display simply because they have moving parts. Other works did succeed in promoting the exhibition’s aims in that they showed Calder’s integration of movement into the structure of the work. It wasn’t difficult to find evidence of this quality in the eighth-floor display. But such observations amount to isolated incidents that have no overriding framework in which their cumulative effects might render new insights, for Sanders and his colleagues abjured strong curatorial narratives and in their place they offered a friendly, open atmosphere where viewer experience is privileged over history. The wall texts provided only a few scant notes about Calder’s interest in dance and music and his mutual affinities with Marcel Duchamp and Edgard Varèse. With little else to go on, the viewer was left to her own closed-off, private experiences. This gave the worrisome impression that the museum is no longer interested in or capable of instructing the public. To enhance viewer experience, the eighth-floor exhibition included daily activations wherein a museum official stirred life into a couple of the thirty-five sculptures by jostling the artworks with a stick. They swayed this way then that way. It appeared that a large portion of the public was capable of appreciating these moments with unencumbered enthusiasm, but if one has had the good fortune to attend any of the special events, these daily activations appeared like token gestures to the organizers’ higher ambitions. In sum, a visit to the eighth-floor gallery was an encounter with a mood. It was a buoyant but brittle sort of joy, which was the inverse of the complicated responses produced by the performances. Upon reflection, this does not seem like a terrible flaw in execution on the curators’ part but a demonstration of profound incongruities between the museum’s role in the city and its duties to art and art history. But that topic extends beyond the purview of this article.

Christopher Kasprzak
MA candidate, Department of Art History, City College of New York