Art & Design
Calder: Monumental is a big deal. A very big deal. The installation at Denver Botanic Gardens through Sept. 24, 2017, is the first outdoor show of Alexander Calder sculptures in the American West and the first solo outdoor exhibition of his works in the United States in more than a decade.
Calder’s mobiles and stabiles made him an internationally famous sculptor and a lasting marquee name in 20th century American art. As the show’s title clearly states, these nine sculptures are heroic works. A colossal orange figure of a woman with four breasts, three legs, high heels, and a hole in her forehead towers outside Marnie’s Pavilion. “The Crab” suggests a giant, boiled-red crustacean.
Not only are the sculptures large, so is their draw.
“This is huge for us,” says Brian Vogt, CEO of the Gardens. “This is an exhibit unique to this space, this time, this city.”
Alfred Pacquement serves as guest curator for Calder: Monumental. The former director of Muse’e National d’Art Modern at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, he says, “Calder is a major, major figure in modern art. In France, Calder is at the top of the list because he worked a lot in France. It was an extremely interesting challenge to imagine this exhibition in these beautiful gardens.”
Calder’s sheet metal shapes with industrial bolts contrast with the softer nature of the plant kingdom. Befittingly, a sculpture of abstracted black mushrooms title “Funghi Neri” installed near the entrance greets visitors to the gardens. Prominent above the grassy amphitheater stands another black piece, “Tripes.” In the herb garden, “A Two-Faced Guy” holds court.
In Monet’s Pond, a blue and red mobile titled “6 Dots Over A Mountain” moves with the wind, graceful as a sailboat. The counterbalanced piece combines elements of both the fixed stabile and the kinetic mobile. The engagement of the environment creates a collaborative experience between the sculpture and the viewer.
“It’s never the same. It’s a permanent transition. Typically viewers walk around a fixed sculpture, but in Calder’s case, the artist turns the art for the viewer,” Pacquement says. “It’s beautiful in this pool. The reflection is fantastic.”
The acclaimed sculptures appear at home in the gardens. No surprise. Nature inspired the artist. “You see nature and then you try to emulate it,” Calder is quoted as saying. “The basis of everything for me is the universe.”
Alexander S.C. Rower — known as “Sandy — is Calder’s grandson and the founder of the Calder Foundation. Rower notes that his grandfather lived on a dairy farm in Connecticut when he began making outdoor sculpture that would “participate with nature.”
Rower says, “The Calder Foundation has pieces that we wouldn’t now put outside, but they were meant for gardens.”
Sited throughout DBG’s York Street location, the sculptures date from 1956 to 1976 and were difficult to stage.
“Only we know what a challenge this was,” says Vogt. “It was very ambitious, and it’s a formidable success that involved incredible tasks. The pieces are iconic, shown outside of museums, and nobody wants to loan their Calder.”
The exhibition includes indoor elements as well. The mobile installed in the lobby of the main conservatory is on loan from Denver Art Museum. Calder created the mobile as an art form. Fellow artist Marcel Duchamp coined the term “mobile.”
And don’t miss the 1927 video “Le Grand Cirque Calder” streaming in the room near the conservatory’s information desk. Calder’s circus suggests a playful personality. Yet that wasn’t the case, according to Rower.
“It’s a misconception that he was jovial and fun-loving and clownish,” Rower says. “He was very serious. He never listened to music in the studio. He had no assistant, never had help. He had a mean sense of humor. He told exotic jokes.”
Yet the artist and the art, in the end, are separate. Calder’s playful appeal is universal; and the sculptures will delight visitors of all ages.
Adam Learner, director and chief animator at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is a Calder fan. He admires the profound simplicity the artist created.
“Calder’s works seem easy, but I’ve seen a thousand people try to copy Calder, and the works never look nearly as good,” Learner says. “It's like he has perfect pitch with color, shape, and composition.”
Calder’s simply perfect sculptures are drawing art-lovers from near and far. Vogt noted that Denver Botanic Gardens rose to the number one most-visited garden in North America during the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit, and he anticipates that the Calder show might catapult the Gardens to the top again.
“This is a dream harbored for many years — for most of her life by Lisa Eldred,” he says, referring to DBG’s director of exhibitions, art and interpretation.
“By presenting Calder: Monumental at Denver Botanic Gardens, we are able to continue our tradition of juxtaposing art with ever-changing living collections to inspire visitors. Works by this American icon relate to both the natural and built environments and offer a new way to see both the sculpture and surrounding gardens,” says Eldred, the spark plug of the Calder show.
“With this show we’re able to offer Colorado and the region a rare opportunity to see a collection of large-scale sculpture by one of America’s most influential sculptors.”
Calder: Monumental in on exhibit through Sept. 24 at Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. Be sure to check the schedule because concerts close the gardens at 3 p.m. Visit botanicgardens.org to learn more about related programs — everything from docent tours, to classes focused on drawing or photographing the sculptures, to Calder for Kids.
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, also has published regularly in The Denver Post, Sunset, Coastal Living, Fine Books and Collections, Faerie Magazine and many other publications.
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