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‘It’s like choreography:’ Calder’s sculpture continues to captivate

Alexander Calder was one of the modern masters of art -- breaking the mold on sculpture in the 20th century. Nearly 40 years after his death, Calder's work continues to captivate. WGBH's Arts Editor Jared Bowen sat down recently with the Chief Curator of the Peabody Essex Museum near Boston to discuss Calder and his creations.

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  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    The notion that you could stand in front of something and wait to see if it moves, how it moves, just automatically slows you down. It means that you have to take a lot of time to look carefully.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    By working in movement, Calder near single-handedly changed the definition of sculpture—rejecting tradition and those carved masses for which his own prominent family of sculptors was known.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    Calder is one of these people who was in the right place at the right time.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Lynda Roscoe Hartigan has overseen this installation of Calder's work at the Peabody Essex Museum. It traces his career beginning with his search for the new which took him to Paris. Throughout the 1920s and 30s he immersed himself in that city's avant-garde group.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    That's where all this ferment was happening. You know, how do you write differently, how do you creative different kinds of music, how do you creative a new kind of art. He really knew how to connect with people and really got involved with artists like Marcel Duchamp and Mondrian.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    That led to Calder's lifelong fascination with movement and form—what many an observer has deemed his own ballets.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    When you think about how a dancer moves, so much of it is about balance. Also, I think when you go through this exhibition you begin to see that there are conversations, there are partnerships among some of the works and so, you could say that it's like choreography. You could also say it's theatrical because its performative.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    It certainly helped that the mathematically-minded Calder brought a hefty engineering prowess to his Connecticut studio where he made all of his own pieces using simple hand tools.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    He had a degree in mechanical engineering. Just the notion of where you would attach weight or release weight, how far you can extend before it goes woppy-jawed in way that you don't want. Sophisticated yet simple and basic principles of physics.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Along with a very limited color palette. Calder loved black and white, Hartigan says for it's impact and contrast. Although the show is punctuated with color.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    Red is the color he felt could really stand up to the black and white. Yellow and blue, the other two primaries, become the colors he thought had good opportunities for accent points. Apparently, absolutely detested the color green.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Throughout his lifetime, Calder remained a hugely popular artist. He began making large-scale public art—interacting with audiences just as his mobiles and stabiles had, but in a grand way.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    He really felt like he could make large outdoor sculpture that could engage people's appreciation of space and architecture, that that could enhance their lives.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Calder died in 1976. His work has been much debated in the intervening years with critics targeting him perhaps because of his popularity. But Hartigan says nearly 40 years after Calder's death, there's no question that he remains one of the 20th century's most profound creators.

  • LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN:

    The reason for his popularity is also the reason for his actual success as an artist because he was so committed to change. I mean, you cannot engage with space now without understanding with what he's helped us interact with as sculpture.

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