JOACHIM PISSARRO with Alexander S. C. Rower
Calder Foundation President Alexander S. C. Rower held a public talk with art historian Joachim Pissarro at Mnuchin Gallery on the occasion of Calder: The Complete Bronzes (October 25 – February 9, 2013), a collaboration between the Foundation and L&M Arts. This is the first exhibition of Calder’s modeled forms in plaster and bronze, a little-known but integral part of the artist’s oeuvre. Pissarro and Rower discussed their commonalities as descendants of renowned artists, whose legacies they continue to explore and reinterpret.
Joachim Pissarro: The warm reception of this show is exactly what it deserves. There were at least two exhibitions of Alexander Calder bronzes that were poorly received in Calder’s lifetime. I’m very happy that history is correcting itself now.
Alexander S.C. Rower: These bronzes look like 2- or 3-foot tall domestic bronzes, but they’re actually two separate bodies of work, the little bronzes from 1930, which I’ll get back to later, and the larger scale works which are all from the summer of 1944. The bronzes only existed in two fractural moments in Calder’s life. In 1944, my grandfather’s friend Wallace K. Harrison, a big architect, was doing a competition, proposing an international style building with a big public plaza. He asked Calder to make a proposal for the plaza, a 40-foot tall, cast-concrete sculpture. Calder went directly to plaster, he didn’t use clay. I’m being technical here because it’s important. You can take a block of clay, mold it, wrap it in burlap and keep it wet, and come back three weeks later to keep molding it. You could work on it for a year if you wanted to. Plaster has this momentary half-life, where you mix it in a bucket, and it’s already on its way to becoming frozen. It’s liquid for only a matter of minutes. So you have to squeeze the plaster into the form you want before it freezes, and then you can’t work it again. It has to be done instantaneously, like action drawing. I actually discovered this through the process of making this exhibition. I never looked at the plasters before. The Smithsonian loaned us the plasters from their collection, so we got to actually examine the fingerprints. They are not plasters cast from the original clay, the way many artists work. They’re actually the original work touched by the artist. This large, aluminum cast (“On One Knee” )—which is itself curious, since it’s not bronze—is arguably the one Calder liked best for the public plaza. We don’t know for sure which is the one he preferred but it feels monumental. It has that scale.
Pissarro: If you had asked me before this exhibition, I would have thought there were perhaps five or six of these. I had no idea that this body of work is so large. This prompted a series of questions, such as why have these bronzes fallen into oblivion? The group of plasters, to which you just referred, was lent by the Smithsonian. Apparently, Calder gave them to the museum, where they remained unseen, and therefore unknown, undiscussed, unpublished, and unexhibited. Tell us the story about the Smithsonian—how did that happen?
Rower: Virtually every Calder sculpture is a unique work. All those steel, aluminum, and wire sculptures are singular. People often proposed to Calder the idea of taking a beautiful stabile, for example, and making editions, and he always refused. In 1964, Calder was widely represented at Documenta 3. The organizer asked Calder, “Could you make us an edition of a sculpture that we could use to sell and raise funds?” He replied, “I don’t make editions, but I did make these little plaster and bronze editions in 1930, which you could select from.” So they chose a horse, and they cast 50 of them. Calder’s French dealer Aimé Maeght got jealous of this business being conducted. So with Calder’s approval, he cast a series of bronzes. Then Calder’s American dealer Klaus Perls got jealous of Maeght, and in 1968 he had all the larger bronzes from 1944 casted. The big show of bronzes was held in New York that same year, and my grandfather decided to retire the plasters after that. So he gave them to the Smithsonian.
Pissarro: Performance is a concept one attaches to Allan Kaprow or Bruce Naumann, but not to Alexander Calder. But I was struck one day, during one of our discussions at the Calder Foundation, when you started to show me how one should interact with these works. As an ex-curator at MoMA, I thought, what do you mean? Will you allow me—the viewer—to touch them? And very cautiously you replied, “Well under my supervision, yes you can.” Showing me how some of the works, like“Double Helix” (1944), were meant to be interactive, not just visually but physically, was a very important point for me. That work is one of the most fascinating with its swirling, gorgeous movement. It’s extraordinarily sensual!
Rower: I’m also quite partial to “Double Helix.” And in fact, it was actually made in advance of the double helix being discovered. So, it doesn’t mean anything actually, but that’s somehow poetically nice. If you spin one of the helices, the interior in one direction and the exterior one in the other direction it’s really a marvelous object.
Pissarro: I think this notion of audience participation, and of playfulness, are keys to this body of work. Certainly it places Calder in a totally different group of artists. Everybody speaks about his relationship with Giacometti—though in so many ways Calder precedes Giacometti—or Picasso, with this monumental work you have here. But here he is really more in dialogue with people like Lygia Clark, the great Brazilian artist who made works to be unpacked, or to be unfolded. Which poses a great deal of problems to public institutions that have to present these works according to the intention of the artist. Maybe we might talk about this—if I haven’t opened a Pandora’s box!
Rower: No it’s a great question. It’s interesting that you use the word “play.” In my family, play used to be a four-letter word. Play implies work that’s lacking in serious intellect, merit, and so on. But recently, we did this Calder symposium at the University of Virginia. Physicists, astronomers, and mechanical engineers, amongst others, presented on topics in their broad spectrum of fields that related to Calder’s intellect. One of the presenters said, “Play equals innovation.” If you watch my 25-month-old son with his building blocks, he learns every time he plays with them. He does something new, and then suddenly he innovates and builds an arch. So now I’ve started to like the word play, instead of seeing it as dismissive of Calder’s intellect.
Pissarro: Calder himself actually loathed the term playfulness, because it stuck to him like glue. Because of it, Calder didn’t really fit in with people like Andre Breton, the pope of super-intellectual, French, arrogant intellectualism. Calder paid a heavy price. The first group of bronzes, which are dated 1930, are absolutely gorgeous and filled with immediacy and physicality. There is something innate in the tactile quality of pressing and molding in those works. They were a way for Calder to say, “Okay, these guys are attacking me for being playful, for being a trusted joker. I’m going to show them what I can do with noble materials.” He managed to transcend the qualities of plaster and bronze. For me, these works are all about defining gravity. He has these massive, weight-oriented blocks of material, and he takes them and has them contradict their very essence.
Rower: The contradiction is, I think, the success of them. If he was just going back to what his father and grandfather did [sculptors Alexander Stirling Calder, and Alexander Milne Calder, respectively], and expressing volume and solidity then I don’t think his bronzes would have had this level of success. Think about “On One Knee,” the big aluminum one, an abstracted, aggressive female form composed of six separate elements. If I touch one balanced piece the whole thing starts to move, which is dangerous and scary in and of itself. But imagine walking up to a forty-foot-tall, cast concrete sculpture in six separate parts, moving above your head on a public plaza. You wouldn’t want to go near it! Also, the little ones from 1930 shouldn’t be dismissed. My favorite is a woman who has fallen on her back “Fallen Woman” (1944). She’s not an acrobat, and she’s not getting some sun on the beach. She’s tripped and fallen over backwards. She’s hit her head, her hair is thrown back, her arms are askew and her legs are at an unattractive angle. Calder knew about the architecture of the body. He knew how to make a beautiful form, and he intentionally made this unattractive form during the half-life of the plaster’s malleability. I think it’s a very beautiful object because of that.
Audience: Did he build an armature for the plaster things?
Rower: The big ones have wire armature. The plaster’s not self-supporting. It’s a reflection back to the work of his father and his grandfather. Of course, the wire armature was an influence on him later when he became a wire sculptor. So there’s this wonderful back-and-forth historically with the use of wire.
Audience: How did he name the sculptures?
Rower: Calder once said, “I use the title of a work like a license plate we would use on a car, just to identify it.” There’s a bronze over there of an abstracted female form on a rope, and the rope goes down and then up. Someone might say, “This is a tightrope walker,” but anyone who knows about the circus knows that isn’t a tightrope walker; that is a slack rope worker. My grandfather never would have made that mistake. So whoever titled that “Tightrope Walker” (1944) was not my grandfather. We have drawings from 1932 of slack rope workers that Calder titled “Slack Rope Workers,” and so on. The question of titles is a little plaguing to us at the Calder Foundation because many of his works were given these aberrant titles by others. For example, a dealer would give a work an incorrect title and then it would be published in a catalogue, and it would come to be known by that title during Calder’s lifetime. The assumption is that Calder approved of that title, even if he didn’t invent it himself. Another 1944 bronze called “Still Life,” has three little legs and a table, and objects coming up off of the table. In 1968, Klaus Perls looked at it and saw a chicken, so he called it “The Chicken.” Now if you look at it as “The Chicken” you see this rather hydrocephalic, unattractive chicken, and it really doesn’t help. If you look at it as “Still Life” it’s really quite abstract.
Audience: But how could that be possible? How can people just change the titles?
Rower: Here’s an answer: when Calder made a mobile, he would cut forms out and literally lay them out on a table, organizing forms that either had some harmony or disharmony—and then he stitched them together with wire to create a hanging mobile. He would use one section with another section to create disparity not just in form and color, but also in motion. Disparity makes a composition, not harmony. A lot has been made about the fact that Calder went to engineering school, but when he made something, it was an incredibly intuitive process. He went to engineering school because his parents didn’t want him to be an artist and suffer the way that they did. So he was an artist as a boy, who became a mechanical engineer by trade, who then went back to art in 1923 because, well you know, mechanical engineering was terrible! My mother had beautiful earrings that he made for her and one was tragically lost. She brought him the remaining earring and said, “Please make me another one to match my set.” He took the left over one and threw it away, and made her a new pair of earrings, because he never wanted to go back and try to figure out what he had felt in that earlier moment. He was a very intuitive and emotional person. The titles also came about in an intuitive way. If you asked him what was the title for a sculpture he’d made 36 years ago, he’d remember the sculpture but he wouldn’t remember the title. So in the moment in 1944 he called it “Still Life,” and in the moment in 1968 his dealer came up with “The Chicken.” And he didn’t care, the titles weren’t important to Calder.
Audience (Pepe Karmel): Some of these works have a certain occurrence, like the “Double Helix”that you were pointing out to us before, that remind me of some of Calder’s first abstract works circa 1930, things that look like arm-wired spheres and solar systems. Is there some reason why he would have gone back to those images in the mid-’40s?
Rower: We’ll call them“Spheriques,” because that’s what he called those works in 1930. He was not referencing “the universe.” What he really meant by that is “a universal.” He didn’t know about molecular structure, but now we do and we know how the relationship between his earliest works and molecular structure is extraordinary. There are examples of him going back to these same structures really all throughout his career. I think because the very first abstract works are so pure—I’m not going to say they’re systematic—but the purity of them becomes so thematic that there’s no reason not to come back to them and explore them again at so many different periods. The difference is if you put one from each decade next to another you see a tremendous progression, there’s no real return.
Pissarro: Sandy, you and I occupy the same connection, as both our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers are artists. In your case, the great-grandfather is the lesser-known figure, and in my case my grandfather is the lesser-known figure. Almost no one has heard of (grandfather) Pissarro. You could also talk about your great-great-grandfather, because Alexander Calder had a grandfather who also occupied a major position in the world of sculpture. The fact that Calder was told by his parents that he should run away [from being an artist] is a very interesting situation. Incidentally, my grandfather was told exactly the same thing, and he became a car mechanic. At some point, he decided that even though he loved cars, painting was more interesting. But I would like to talk about Calder’s legacy insofar as he didn’t come out of nowhere; he came out of the art world.
Rower: Alexander Milne Calder, my great-great-grandfather, came from Scotland, and he’s what I’d call a traditional, municipal sculptor. His great masterpiece is the 38-foot-tall bronze statue of William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania, on top of Philadelphia’s city hall. Then came Alexander Stirling Calder, who was much more emotional, much more poetic. He made mermaids and crazy stuff, sort of Beaux Art. Stirling didn’t want his son to be an artist but he was incredibly supportive. He even exhibited some of Calder’s earliest outdoor pieces outside his house in 1934. He was proud of them, even though he didn’t fully understand them. As a Pissarro, you have a responsibility, don’t you? I pose that to you.
Pissarro: It’s a heavy responsibility. The other thing we share is that neither of us just sat with our legacy, but decided to do something to carry on. You’ve changed the world of connoisseurship about Calder and his relationship within the 20th century, from beginning to end. We’ve had many conversations about the kind of hair-raising, problematic situations we’ve had to face as the “owners” of this so-called legacy. People think, “Oh, how charming to be the descendant of an artist,” but it comes with a number of really complicated situations, like the fact that you can be sued for saying that a painting is fake. The word “fake” is absolutely taboo in our world. I don’t know how you get away with it but I understand you’ve been able to circumvent the more problematic aspects of legacy.
Rower: These things can end up in museum collections and hang there, and a smart person like you walks in and sees this beautiful de Chirico and you see this “Calder” next to it and you think, “Calder’s a terrible artist.” That’s really tough for me, and I take a very strong stance about that. My issue is with the diminishment of my grandfather’s legacy.
Pissarro: One of the facets of what you have accomplished is the unearthing of Calder’s multifarious, complex, and surprising personality. He had an interest in all forms of art. Recently, we were talking about Calder and his love of dancing. When I look up at the double helices over there, and think about dancing, it reminds me of Matisse’s “La Dance.” Calder, who has been so pigeonholed, is so much broader and more complex—he’s sort of a proto-Post-Modernist. Today, it’s very good to do everything, but during the Modernist period it was not. Your grandfather paid a hefty price for being so adventurous.
Rower: Also, he was unwilling to engage. He was a communicative person, but in the last period of his life he didn’t want to be interviewed anymore and he didn’t want to write stuff about his theories about art. It was just, “Look at it. You like it? You don’t like it? Good. At least you had a look.” That was enough for him. He was just always looking forward, always making the next project. The tragic part is that his intellectual achievements have been minimalized as a result.
Pissarro: To me, these bronze works are a whole facet of modern sculpture that just hasn’t been spoken about until now. Calder occupied a principle force within the history of modern sculpture, and looking at his bronzes is really a way to rethink the history of Modernism.
Many thanks to Jessica Holmes for editorial assistance with this interview.
Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.Alexander S. C. Rower