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Seattle Art Museum Exhibition Traces 50 Years of Alexander Calder's Career
Polychrome Dots and Brass on Red, 1964. Sheet metal, brass, wire and paint, 2 x 6 1/8 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Jon and Mary Shirley.

SEATTLE, WA.- Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act on view at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) downtown October 15, 2009, to April 11, 2010, traces the master American sculptor’s work from the late 1920s to the 1970s. Organized by the Seattle Art Museum and curated by Michael Darling, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the survey features his signature mobiles, stabiles, works on paper and jewelry. Drawn primarily from the Seattle area collection of Jon and Mary Shirley, the exhibition will showcase the wide range of Calder’s interests, abilities, materials and phases during his long and productive career. Accompanying the exhibition will be 44 photographs and a film by Calder’s contemporary Herbert Matter that show his working process in many different studios over the years.

“This will be a singular occasion to appreciate the work of one of the 20th century’s titans of modern art,” said Darling. “The Shirleys’ collection allows us to examine Calder’s variations on themes and scale in a depth that few museums have the opportunity to present.”

The title of the exhibition refers to the artist’s feats of artistry and engineering, as well as his ability to work in many different arenas, from pure abstraction to playful naturalism. Calder was one of the leaders in defining what mattered in 20th-century art, balancing delicacy and the handmade with industrial materials and processes.

Calder’s work is a crucial bridge between abstract painting and sculpture that was taking root in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and the abstract language being embraced in the US after World War II. The mobiles, in particular, were a giant leap forward in the expansion of artistic possibilities, both for artists and audiences, as their moveable parts ensured that a work was never “finished.” They defy stasis and are constantly, emphatically alive. He also pushed the boundaries of pure color and bold form to the forefront of aesthetic consideration.

Small-Scale Works in Wire and Metal
Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act features groupings of small standing mobiles that demonstrate how Calder played with variations on certain themes, such as red tripod bases with arcing cantilevers on top. When looking at works such as "Black, White, Yellow and Brass on Red" (1959) and "Polychrome Dots and Brass on Red" (1964), one can imagine them at a gigantic scale, but they are also satisfying at a diminutive size, where the hand-pounding and forming of metal is direct and evident. Some of these spirals and branching forms find direct complements in Calder’s jewelry creations, as well, revealing how fluid his approach was between the two genres. The exhibition includes examples of earrings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, even a key ring designed and created by the artist. In addition, "Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act" features several of the artist’s delicate wire sculptures. Often compared to drawings that exist in three-dimensional space, these small-scale works demonstrate Calder’s acuity at balancing his keen artistic sense with playfulness and elegant craftsmanship.

Mobiles and Stabiles
Alexander Calder is perhaps most famous for having invented the fine art mobile. His mobiles and stabiles (or non-moving sculptures) are among his most recognized works, and a number of important pieces in these genres – from smaller maquettes to some of Calder’s largest, monumental works – will be on view in the exhibition. At about eight-feet across, Untitled, a mobile from about 1948, includes organic, leaf-like “paddles” or “leaves” that move gracefully on the breeze, alongside a dangling, abstract carved wood element and a bright yellow circle. The balance of organic and geometric forms makes one think of plants, astronomy or even microbiology, all at once.

Some of the recognized masterpieces in the show include the “standing mobile” (a piece that has moving parts but rests on the ground) "Bougainvillier," 1947, and the large-scale, 23-foot mobile Red Curly Tail (1970) from much later in the artist’s career. "Eagle" (1971) currently in SAM’s collection and on view at the Olympic Sculpture Park is a good example of the later, monumental variants of Calder’s stabiles. "Eagle" will be part of the exhibition "Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act" through a live-feed video from the sculpture park and on view in the downtown Seattle galleries.

Photographs and Film by Herbert Matter
Alexander Calder’s working process comes to life in the exhibition through photographs by Herbert Matter that document the artist in his studio. On loan from the Calder Foundation, the photographs span more than ten years in the 1930s and 40s and many different studios and working spaces, revealing the creative chaos of Calder’s working environment, the almost surreal abstraction of having all of that metal and curving wire around and the workmanlike, quasi-industrial feel to the artist’s processes and surroundings. The photographs also document some of his past exhibitions and give museum visitors a sense of how Calder himself liked to display his works. A full-color film produced by Matter in 1951, with music by John Cage and narration by Burgess Meredith, also gives great insight into Calder’s Roxbury, Connecticut, studio.

Seattle Art Museum | Alexander Calder | Michael Darling | Mary Shirley |

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