Art Scraps

Two back-to-back museum experiences remind me that nothing is quite so off-putting as professionalism dressed as whimsy.  The recent “theanyspacewhatever” exhibit at the Guggenheim was a perfectly competent group show, but it was more admirable than engaging.  The free espresso as performance art and the movie theater marquee on Fifth Avenue fulfilled all glam requirements and the Pinocchio figure face down in the museum lobby pool made for a captivating promotional image.  I felt fairly satisfied when I left the exhibit, but I didn’t realize how cold it left me until I skipped into the positively rosy Calder exhibit that’s currently playing over at the Whitney.  If the Guggenheim show insists on its art credibility a little too aggressively, then the Whitney exhibit asks you to do little more than give your trash a second look. 

I have long been under the spell of Calder’s circus because it does so many things at once.  It proves that art is cast-offs and art is playful and art is democratic.  I simply can’t imagine how the film of Calder playing with all his different props and creatures could fail to enchant anyone.  He is the serious straightman to a whole host of goofy characters and tableaus and it is nothing short of magic. 

His simpler wire portraits and sculptures are no less wondrous.  A wire sculpture of copulating pigs shows a tiny piglet already growing out of its parents’ efforts.  The grinning tone of these works belies their utter precision.  The exhibit is scattered with quotes from Duchamp and other admiring notables praising Calder’s mastery of the single line in three dimensions.  I wasn’t sure what this might mean until I saw his nudes in all their fully figured glory.  He doesn’t just trace their shapes in wire – he angles his wire so that the full shape of a leg or torso is observable from any vantage point.  The sculptures are static sleights of hand. 

These exhibits at the Whitney and Guggenheim configure art and fun in tellingly antithetical ways.  The Guggenheim show starts with the assumption that a museum show is art, but that it might also be popular.  Calder’s starting point is with the semi-industrial materials of his engineering training.  He created toys and trinkets and visual jokes that came to be recognized as the art that they are.  I don’t doubt that Calder benefitted from the advantages of his place within an artistic dynasty or that his more serious pieces helped to seal his reputation and  elevate his lighter works.  But his starting point is one that makes sense to me.  Better to enjoy your art than to make art that your audience is supposed to enjoy.


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