PEM's "Calder": Master Builder in Motion

Calder's "Blue Feather" c. 1948
Sheet metal, wire and paint. Calder Foundation, New York
Copyright: 2014 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource, NY
The current special exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum (or PEM), in Salem, “Calder and Abstraction: from Avant-Garde to Iconic”, now on view through January 4, 2015, is a revelation even for those who have always loved Alexander Calder’s mobiles and stabiles. In its only East Coast venue (organized by the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Calder Foundation), it consists of forty of the sculptor’s works, both full sized and maquettes, all made between the 1930’s and the 1960’s. Even for those quite familiar with Calder’s style and use of color, form and motion, it’s a unique opportunity to appreciate his work in such a graceful and serene setting.

The installation is so spectacular it just about takes one’s breath away, but fortunately there are several areas in which to sit and watch his mobiles and their shadows work their magic, and to meditate on how they so beautifully fill their space. The soft background music (for example, compositions by Erik Satie) completes the totally engaging experience. But it is Calder’s words one should also attend. He stated that there is in his work an underlying sense of form, namely the system of the universe, which is “a rather large mobile to work from”. He added that “just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motion.” Tellingly, he also noted that “a mobile in motion leaves an invisible wake, or rather, each element leaves an individual wake behind its individual self, a slow, gentle impulse.” Above all else, his creations convey either the freedom from earth that results from an object freely floating, or the solid foundation that supports a multitude of forms.

This is one exhibition one simply can’t rush through if it’s to be fully experienced. The stark white walls and chairs invite a more leisurely and contemplative visit, which is difficult to describe adequately. It has to be seen and thus felt to be as effectively stunning as it is. It may well be the single most beautifully installed exhibit of his (or any other artist’s) work ever composed. And composed you will be.

While there, if you haven’t already done so, do take in the Yin Yu Tang, a Chinese House, with timed entries (and a self-guided audio tour) all for a small additional entry charge. Over two centuries old, with sixteen bedrooms and occupied in China until the 1980’s, it’s unique in this country. It’s well worth the trip to PEM in and of itself.

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