Alexander Calder exhibition at Seattle Art Museum

Before Alexander Calder (b. 1898, Lawnton, PA–d. 1976, New York City), sculpture was fixed, ground based, motionless. Like Dr. J in basketball, Calder took his medium into the air with a revolutionary flair, freeing it from the earth–dynamic, dramatic, kinetic, soaring, spinning, whirling, dipsey-doo.

Any wonder he was enamored with Josephine Baker? Calder made a series of wire sculptures inspired by her while living in France in the 1920s.

“It shatters the illusion of everything that sculpture ever was (and) is unlike any body of work created (in the 20th century),” Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, the longtime representative of Calder’s work, said on the Calder episode of PBS’ “American Masters” documentary. “He changed the nature of sculpture. He redefined what sculpture was, could possibly be, and now is.”

Calder’s art and influence can be appreciated anew, en masse, at the Seattle Art Museum as it debuts the first of what will be an ongoing initiative of Alexander Calder exhibitions, events, and education programs celebrating his life, legacy, and work. The presentation is made possible by a transformative gift from the museum’s longtime supporters Jon and Kim Shirley.

The Shirley Family Collection

Jon Shirley was a Navy brat who earned a scholarship to boarding school in Pennsylvania. There, the math guy who would go to college at MIT and eventually serve as president, COO and director of the Microsoft Corporation, took an elective humanities class that changed his life. He was introduced to the performing arts, music, literature, poetry, visual arts, architecture and Alexander Calder. He left school with a strong interest in sculpture and jazz.

Later visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s old Breuer Building–all stocked with Calder masterworks–transformed Shirley’s interest in Calder into a passion.

He bought his first Calder artwork, Squarish (1970), in 1988. That piece can now be seen at the Seattle Art Museum.

“Calder is one of the most timeless artists there’s ever been, he created a whole new artform,” Shirley told me. “He created sculpture that was open, that could hang in space, and, incidentally, move. Something about the way my brain works, I really enjoy being with the works.”

Along with his first wife Mary, and then following her passing with his second wife Kim, Jon Shirley would go on to amass the finest private collection of Alexander Calder artwork in the world. In April of 2023, he and Kim donated the Shirley Family Calder Collection and a $10 million endowment to the Seattle Art Museum. The collection centers around a group of spectacular hanging and standing mobiles dating from the 1930s to the 1970s, with a strong emphasis on works Calder created during the postwar years–the artist’s peak according to Jon Shirley, who never met Calder.

“To give away a collection like this that took many years to create is no small thing, it’s a really big thing. Most people don’t do it. Most art collectors don’t give away their collections,” Alexander S. C. Rower, Calder Foundation founder and Alexander Calder’s grandson, said at a media preview for “Calder: In Motion.” “Jon has this core vision that this collection is powerful as a group and speaks as a group and has a chance to have a much bigger vocabulary as a group.”

His job at Microsoft brought Jon Shirley to Seattle 40 years ago. Kim Richter Shirley, a former attorney and certified public accountant, has lived there almost her entire life. Both are longtime board members at the Seattle Art Museum.

“What we really want to emphasize is how important SAM is as an institution to us, how important Seattle is to us,” Richter Shirley, a 2023 appointee to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said at the media preview. “SAM, like all other cultural institutions, and the city itself, has really suffered tremendously during COVID and the aftermath of COVID. We had to unfortunately lay off staff and we really want to be a part of rebuilding SAM and rebuilding this community and as part of that we want to make SAM more a part of this community; we want everyone to feel like they have a place here, we want to reflect the incredibly diversity in this community.”

To the gift of artwork and the endowment, the Shirley’s made an additional $1 million gift with additional promised annual gifts of $250,000 to $500,000 to support future programs, research, talks, tours, performances, art-making workshops, and a family-friendly festival. And education. Field trips.

A core component of the Shirleys’ programming support focuses on K-12 students and provides free admission and full or partial bus reimbursement for all qualifying Seattle Public Schools.

“Calder: In Motion”

Alexander Calder, Fish, 1942, installation view at Seattle Art Museum.
Alexander Calder, Fish, 1942, installation view at Seattle Art Museum. Photo by Chadd Scott

The Seattle Art Museum launched its Calder initiative on November 8, 2023, with the Alexander Calder exhibition “Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection.” This is the first comprehensive public display of more than 45 important works–enormous and tiny–representing every decade of Calder’s career from the 1920s through 70s, including iconic mobiles, stabiles, wire sculptures, a constellation, works on paper, and a significant oil painting, as well as lithographs and related ephemera.

To accentuate the artist’s exploration of height, scale, and movement, the exhibition occupies the museum’s double-height galleries—a unique space for large-scale works, with several overlooks from the floor above.

“This exhibition exceeds our greatest hopes,” Shirley said. “Everything here looks better than it did in our house. It’s beautifully done, beautifully presented.”

The Shirley’s didn’t keep their Calder’s hidden away in storage, they lived with them. Their family room featured three Calder gouaches and three metal sculptures, including Squarish. One hung over the table they worked on puzzles together during the pandemic lockdown.

“It’s really joyful,” Richter Shirley said of living with Alexander Calder artworks.

Joy was a feature of Calder’s art making. Innocence. Those who knew him best described him as a big kid.

Calder’s art stands apart from much of what was created throughout the 20th century for being unjaded, uncynical. In an era defined by turmoil, war, and devastation, he found joy.

The public will now be able to experience a measure of that joy.

Two of the most important works on view from the collection are Gamma (1947) and Bougainvillier (1947), masterpieces among the finest examples of Calder’s signature hanging and standing mobiles. Both works were made in 1947 at the peak of his classical style.

The collection also includes Fish (1942), a significant–and possibly the first–work from a rare and much beloved series of fish mobiles made up of architectures of painted rod and wire that house found materials including metal objects, porcelain fragments, and bits of glass in myriad colors. During these war years, his favored material, aluminum, was unavailable due to military demands.

Joyful, whimsical, wacky, but not light. Not unsubstantial. Not fluff.

“Calder is a weird artist. His work is very attractive and because it’s so attractive, sometimes it’s hard to get to the full intellectual component of what he’s trying to communicate with us,” Rower said. “It’s pretty and it hangs there and it moves and it’s colorful and none of that is what his art is about–that’s a way to draw you in like a fly and get you stuck to his art–and then to get you to open up and find something else about yourself, it’s about introspection.”

While Calder is best known for the big–gigantic, pterodactyl-sized mobiles hanging in the world’s best art museums, and his monumental ground-based pieces sited in prominent public spaces around the nation including The Eagle (1971), a six-ton, 38-foot-tall giant adorning Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, Shirley donated that one as well–Jon Shirley is particularly proud of Calder’s tiny sculptures he’s been able to collect, some, not much larger than an inch. Many of these were created and given away as gifts by the artist.

Following “Calder: In Motion,” which runs through August 4, 2024, the second exhibition in the multi-year series will feature internationally renowned contemporary artists who have been profoundly influenced by Calder. Later exhibitions will undertake in-depth reexaminations of specific historical periods in the artist’s career.

Calder 101

Alexander Calder, Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong, 1948, installation view at Seattle Art Museum.
Alexander Calder, Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong, 1948, installation view at Seattle Art Museum. Photo by Chadd Scott

Art was a part of Calder’s everyday life from childhood. His mom was a painter. His father and grandfather were prominent American sculptors. His Scottish forefathers were stonemasons. Even as a youngster, he was constantly tinkering with wood and metal. He made his own toys.

He could seemingly make anything with his hands. A natural. His artmaking didn’t feature power tools, laser cutting or machine stamping. Not even the big pieces. Note the rough, hand-cut outlines on even the largest mobiles.

He carried a roll of wire and pliers with him at almost all times and when attending parties, would create portraits of fellow partygoers. He could draw with wire. These portraits are anything, but rough or crude and somehow manage to convey a sense of the subject’s personality. In wire. Produced on the spot. Amazing.

Calder’s inspirations were as varied as the circus and the cosmos. He spent a great deal of time in Paris in the 1920s and 30s where his circle included Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Jean Cocteau, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, fellow titans of Modernism. Marcel Duchamp coined the term “mobiles” to describe Calder’s hanging sculptures. Arp coined “stabiles” for the ground-based pieces.

His admirers included Albert Einstein, who reportedly watched a Calder artwork for a full 40-minutes uninterrupted.

He was revolutionary for animating sculpture. For taking sculpture into the air. For merging it with abstraction.

Beyond sculpture, he created jewelry, stage sets, illustrations, posters, wallpaper, paintings and prints. He worked in bronze and metal and wood. He painted Braniff jets and BMW race cars.

A diversity prefiguring contemporary artists.

“(‘Calder: In Motion’) is an introduction to Calder, but I think also the goal is to demonstrate what a multidisciplinary artist he was,” José Carlos Diaz, Susan Brotman Deputy Director of Art at the Seattle Art Museum and curator of the Alexander Calder exhibition, told me. “When you think of artists today, artists are no longer just a photographer, just a painter, just a sculptor, and Calder wasn’t either, and you tend to think of artists from the past as being a famous sculptor or a famous painter.”

By any standard, Calder is an essential. He’s one of the few artists who most people have seen, even if they don’t know it, or his name. They’ve seen his work on the street or in a museum or in a book or on TV. And once introduced, they’ll never forget it–“oh, that’s a Calder!”

“I think the art world can be extremely elitist and dense,” Diaz said. “I love art to be populous and accessible and I want someone to walk in here that has never been to SAM, or doesn’t know who Calder is, so the show is for them.”

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