Calder’s Portraits: a new Language
I have to admit that I was caught a bit off-guard when I first entered the Calder exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. I have such an engrained idea of his mobiles that I did not expect to see such an enlightening view into one of Calder’s entirely different studio practices. Accompanied by the portrait gallery’s own photographs, the wire portraits bore striking resemblances to Calder’s subjects, and through his satirical style, Calder raised the question of the line between fine-art portraiture verses caricature.
Walking through the exhibit, we get to see Calder’s portrayals of entertainment, sports, and art-world figures, including Josephine Baker, Jimmy Durante, Babe Ruth, and Charles Lindbergh. We also see his friends and colleagues Marion Greenwood, Fernand Léger, and Saul Steinberg. The people Calder chose to portray were those that affected his life directly and because of Calder’s passionate sense of play and his buoyant personality, he continued to challenge the traditionally accepted sense of ‘sculpture’ throughout his entire career. Beginning with his circus figures and leading into his portraiture, he eventually laid the groundwork for kinetic sculpture that we associate the most with Calder’s famous name.
Perhaps, though, I entered the exhibit with a chip on my shoulder because Calder’s mobiles are so well known that they have become cliché, and as a result, I was reluctant to see Calder’s portraits as anything more than three-dimensional illustrations. However, despite my skepticism, the very first portrait I encountered of Calvin Coolidge broke down my resistance, and I was immediately affected by the beauty in these objects.
Using single wires to draw lines in space, Calder captures Calvin’s essential qualities such as his large ears, cleft chin, hooked nose, and beady eyes in a way that is so gesturally accurate that I expected the portrait to start making faces at me. But it is not only the accuracy that holds my attention – it is also the humor Calder creates in the exaggerated features. These characteristics were also demonstrated extremely well in the Jimmy Durante portrait, however it is the exaggeration that is the danger point where the portraits could almost teeter into the realm of caricature, and though I personally do not believe the portraits step over that invisible line, I think there is one brief yet important point to be made before moving on.
The point I am eluding to is that I do not think Calder would have argued one for the other, and once arriving at this point, we are free to enjoy these objects for the beautiful things that they are rather than getting caught up in an argument that really would not have interested the artist nor altered the work. I believe that the issue of portrait verses caricature is more important to critics and the ‘art world’ than it is to the actual work. The pieces have an inherent liveliness that allows them to stand on their own, and according to what I have read about Calder’s light-heartedness, I think he would have shrugged off this argument and continued working on the next portrait without a care in the world.
While not as important as the work itself, the museum deserves some recognition for how well the work is displayed. Some of the portraits are suspended in vitrines and lit from above. In these displays, the line quality of the wire is translated clearly and sharply, and as the pieces rotate, they almost seem to float in the air while the shadows dance beneath them. Other portraits such as the Edgar Varese piece was suspended from the ceiling, and the shadows were cast on the wall behind as well as on the floor. In both cases, the result was dramatic and very effective.
The Edgar Varese piece, in particular, stood out because of its personal nature. Apparently, Edgar used to sit with Calder and watch him as he worked. In turn, Calder often listened to Edgar’s music compositions. The two men complimented each other well because they both were becoming known for their unconventional styles in material and sound. As we move through the rest of the exhibit, we encounter the portraits of entertainers and sports figures, but I mention the personal nature of the Varese piece because the portraits Calder made of his friends and colleagues had a much more heartfelt essence making them more successful. For example, Calder’s depiction of Babe Ruth was more superficial, and although I established the unimportance of caricature verses fine-art portraiture in Calder’s case, the superficiality of the Babe Ruth piece veered it more into the direction of caricature than portraiture.
The portraits of Calder’s artist and critic friends/colleagues seemed also to draw attention to his sense of humor and sarcasm. I noticed that all of these pieces were made and displayed in a static fashion standing from a stationary pedestal. I felt that the gesture could only have been a deliberate attempt to poke fun at taking themselves too seriously by being displayed as their own art objects.
My favorite piece in the show was on display in this same area of the exhibit, but unfortunately we only get to see it in photographic format. Calder did a wire portrait of his close friend, artist, and critic Fernand Léger, and though it is not the actual wire portrait on display, it is a photograph of Léger holding the piece across from his face as though looking into a mirror. The humor is inescapable, but beyond that, the portrait is a perfect example of Calder’s expert hand. We can see the intense control he has in getting the subtle yet precise bends and curves in achieving facial features that perfectly describe the subjects being depicted. He always includes just enough visual information to capture a personality, and he often seems able to accomplish this task with simply a few well-formed lines. He retains only the essentials to create the minimum gestural information while at the same time attaining the maximum amount of expressiveness.
We see Calder’s ever present sense of play juxtaposed with his incredible ability to capture a person’s essential qualities in this exhibition. I am always impacted when I see such a large quantity of work and know that it is but a small fraction of how much the artist actually produced. More importantly, though, the impact is always greater when the quantity of work is matched by its quality. Calder’s unique ability to hang onto his childlike nature is what gives his portraits so much of their power, and I greatly admire his artistic pursuit. The simplification Calder employs to arrive at such sophisticated products is best described by him when he said in a very minimal Calder-like fashion:
“Where you have features you draw them. Where there aren’t any, you let go.”