Exhibition explores the modernist approach and formal experimentation of Harry Callahan and Alexander Calder

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Exhibition explores the modernist approach and formal experimentation of Harry Callahan and Alexander Calder
Harry Callahan, New York, 1974. Vintage gelatin silver print, 10" × 9-7/8" (25.4 cm × 25.1 cm), image 12" × 11" (30.5 cm × 27.9 cm), paper © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace Gallery.

LONDON.- Pace is presenting Calder, Callahan, and the Intensified Image, an online exhibition that explores the modernist approach and formal experimentation of American artists Harry Callahan and Alexander Calder. Illuminated by Calder’s axiomatic observations and organized into three thematic subsections with titles drawn from Callahan’s musings, the presentation features nineteen works across different media, including sculpture, oil painting, photography, and works on paper. Together, these works demonstrate both artists’ virtuosic ability to create what Callahan dubbed an “intensified image”—a depurated yet impactful work of art capable of pushing modern art towards new horizons. The first exhibition to draw parallels between the two artists, Calder, Callahan, and the Intensified Image is curated by Michaëla Mohrmann, Associate Curatorial Director in collaboration with Kaelan Kleber, Associate Director, Lauren Panzo, Vice President, and Adam Sheffer, Vice President at Pace.

Despite operating in distinct artistic milieus and mastering different media, Harry Callahan and Alexander Calder shared a sensitivity to the fundamentals of art—form, color, and line, among them—that led to their invention of uniquely modern visual idioms. In the 1940s, Callahan radically broke with the descriptive, blackand- white realism that dominated photography by developing an abstract aesthetic that resonated with new forms of avant-garde painting, notably works by the New York School. His expressed goal was to lead his viewers “to see freshly and feel intensely” by transforming everyday reality through his carefully balanced compositions marked by extreme contrasts, in-camera multiple exposures, or translucent layering. “The difference between the casual impression and the intensified image,” Callahan affirmed, “is about as great as that separating the average business letter from a poem.” In linking his artistic pursuit of intensity to poetic distillation, Callahan was not alone. One of the twentieth century’s most celebrated and influential artists, Calder, too, observed that in art “the elimination of other things which are not essential will make for a stronger result,” a modernist reductivism that led philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to describe the artist’s groundbreaking kinetic sculptures or mobiles as “absolutes.” Similarly to Callahan, Calder believed that “an abstraction, sculpted or painted” could offer “an intensely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei without meaning.” He later concluded, “To most people who look at a mobile, it’s no more than a series of flat objects that move. To a few, though, it may be poetry.”

The first section of the exhibition, titled Compositions “Filled with Conflict and Choices,” explores the tension between experimental risk-taking and expert calculations that defined the daring yet complex compositions of both Calder and Callahan. Organizing his work in distinct series, Callahan consistently mined new photographic techniques. Works such as Kleenex and Penny on Opal Glass (c. 1952) demonstrate his willingness to use unorthodox materials in his pursuit of arresting translucency, dramatic disparities, and spatial ambiguity. In other photographs, such as Eleanor, Chicago (c. 1952), Callahan reshoots on sheet film to create dynamic and gossamer superimpositions with an almost surrealistic quality. This venturesome combination of technical dexterity and chance-based composition is also present in Calder’s work, such as Untitled (1969), which is open to being animated by unforeseeable wind currents. Driven by an experimental will, Calder alternated between his sculptural practice and two-dimensional media, creating densely packed oil paintings, where vividly colored shapes jostle for dominance.

The second section, “Going Abstract” with Color, examines how Callahan and Calder investigated abstraction through a reductive color palette that defied the boundaries separating mediums. By applying color paint to his mobiles and stabiles, Calder further dissolved the line between sculpture and painting, which the pronounced linearity of his “drawings in space” had already initiated. Likewise, in his painted works Lines of Flow (1947) and Untitled (1972), color often plays a dominant role by, for example, overtaking the picture plane or gaining sculptural density as fully saturated blocks. Though Calder sometimes used secondary colors, such as pink and orange, his predilection for an unnaturalistic and reductive palette points to his dialogue with eminent abstract painters in his entourage, notably Piet Mondrian and Fernand Léger.

Nonfigurative painting similarly informed Callahan, who felt that color photographs could easily look “goofy” when straightforwardly representational. Reminiscent of Neoplasticism and the New York School, his trailblazing color photography structures and balances its chromatic expanses through an almost architectonic understanding of geometry and line, indicative of the additional influence of architect Mies van der Rohe.

The third and final section, Line on “the Edge of Nothingness,” centers on the spare beauty characterizing Callahan’s and Calder’s art, especially in terms of line. By overexposing his photographs or playing with shutter speed, Callahan skillfully captured the evanescent and unnoticed—from humble weeds in the snow to ethereal whorls of light refracted in pools of water—thereby pushing his chosen medium, as well as perception itself, to its limits. “I think nearly every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness— the point where you can’t go any further,” he mused. With similar ingenuity, Calder harnessed the optical and physical lightness of wire to devise a type of sculpture open to space and movement, thus breaking with a longstanding sculptural tradition largely limited to carving and modeling static volumes. Through their swift brushstrokes of varying thickness, his gouaches also reveal his sensitivity to the delicate vitality of the natural world that, as with Callahan, resonates with his work.

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