When Sculpture Cannot Sit Still

John Haber
in New York City

David Smith in White and Alexander Calder Mobiles

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait in Prints

I could have traveled up the Hudson Valley to see the David Smith I knew. I would have found him at his closest to Surrealism, with Iron Woman. I would have found him at his most minimal, with Five Units Equal—or, with works like Tanktotem, everything in between.

I would have caught Alexander Calder at his most static along the way. The Arch could almost serve as an entrance to Storm King's five hundred acres. Then again, I could have stopped by the Whitney in search of both icons of American sculpture. On a good day, one of Smith's Cubi might hold forth on a terrace, while Calder's Circus might be entertaining overgrown children as much as ever. Alexander Calder's Circus, Tightrope Artists (Whitney Museum, 1926–1931)Instead, I found both artists at their most elusive, with Smith in white and Calder mobiles. And with Louise Bourgeois, the enigma of American sculpture persists to this day in prints.

With his monochrome, Smith adds a mystery. And with his mobiles, Calder created sculpture so lively that one can use it to introduce Modernism to kids. Still, the stubborn child in me has always had a question: when are they going to move? The answer at least is now. The Whitney looks back to Paris and the origins of a new art form.

As for Bourgeois, "My mother was right. Suffer and die." It sounds like a final plea from the heart, from a woman long past the need for compromise. Not that this artist was ever one to compromise, and MoMA has every right to call more than two hundred and fifty prints "An Unfolding Portrait." Still, she had lasted well into her nineties by the time of My Inner Life, a print just two years before her death in 2010. Like her sculpture, it combines frankness with just enough detachment to make anyone squirm.

Ghosts of modern sculpture

A visitor to Bolton Landing may have felt that he had seen a ghost. David Smith had died two years before, in 1965, but his presence lingered over his studio, a converted farm in upstate New York—and over modern art. It lingered enough that the visitor, Ralph E. Ogden, bought thirteen sculptures on the spot, as the foundation of Storm King Art Center. When I first visited years later, their presence at sunset across the art center's meadows, hills, and native plants helped me understand sculpture as drawing, as mass, as abstraction, as human form, and as site. Smith did, after all, title a work now in the Whitney, from 1951, Hudson River Landscape. I could not have known that, at his death, he left something more ghostly still—sculptures in white.

Now Storm King recreates their siting on its central "museum hill." Then it builds a larger exhibition around a simple question: why ever are they white? Smith studied painting with Hans Hoffman at the Art Students League, like Lee Krasner and many a future Abstract Expressionist, but one rarely thinks of him as a colorist. One thinks of his art more as steel, bronze, and more steel—stainless, burnished, rusted, or painted black. He took a summer job at an auto factory and kept on welding.

That last option holds out a clue to why sculpture had seen its ghost. The show mentions that he used white as underpainting. Case closed, right? Probably, but white keeps turning up in other ways as well, on two floors of Storm King's visitor center. He applied it to metal in at least one finished work, along with what he called moon blue. He used white coral along with terra cotta, wood, and wire in some early sculpture as well.

White appears more often in other media. It appears as snowy landscapes in photographs—and as sky or reflected light in photos of sculpture titled Black White Backward. It appears as the ground for drips like those of Jackson Pollock, but with the black squeezed from a syringe. It appears, too, in works on paper akin to photograms, as Smith sprayed black enamel over components of sculpture and removed them. Taken together, the uses of white span his career. They help round out a 2006 retrospective, on his centennial, and a 2011 show of his late Cubi and spray paintings.

David Smith's Primo Piano 1 (Roberts family collection, 1962)Storm King draws on just the eight loans and its collection, including unpainted steel. It points out Smith's debt to iron sculpture by Julio González—and so to Pablo Picasso. Unlike past shows of Tomás Saraceno, and Thomas Houseago, and Josephine Halvorson, it leaves the rest of its grounds to others, with the side benefit of extending Smith's presence. They include his wife, Dorothy Dehner, as well as George Rickey, Alexander Liberman, Mark di Suvero, and Joel Shapiro. The white sculpture comes across as bright, firm, and less ghostly after all. It could almost make Smith a colorist after all.

Heather Hart has a commission in the opposite direction, lost in the woods. Hart sets down an attic and roof, as if blown there like home in The Wizard of Oz. Hart has gone in the past for a woman's presence, through crocheting, and the presences of others, through found poetry and recipes. Here she treats the building to performances and recorded testimonials, as The Oracle of Lacuna. One can enter to hear about neighboring towns—or forget the heavy talk and clamber over the roof. The red wood and tar can serve as a playground or an echo of sculpture's red and black steel.

Mobiles in motion

With "Hypermobility," the Whitney sets the mobiles in motion. One can see them as Alexander Calder intended—often for the first time since an initial display long ago. One can see, too, their central place in his art. Did his larger, static public sculpture introduce Modernism to corporate adults? When he hit on a back-formation, stabiles, to describe that work, he was reminding everyone what came first. So what if, by its very definition, it is already slipping away?

One really can use the mobiles to introduce sculpture to kids. They show that abstract art, too, gets to play around. The most familiar have the lightness of slim steel planes in black or fire-engine red, suspended by wire like a fancy chandelier on the verge of falling apart. Some incorporate imagery, such as fish, but all are teeming with life. One can take for granted that they do not even have to move, because of their potential for motion. It helps, though, to plan around the museum's schedule, for when they do.

They move in more ways than one. The very first, starting in 1931, incorporate a hidden motor, and restoration took some doing. The show's title suggests hyperactivity, but the changes are often barely perceptible, as a single ball rises while another just as slowly falls. Sculpture moves, but it demands that viewers slow down. Others respond to currents of ambient air, while still others require a museum staffer to give them a push, with a rod. Calder's ingenuity or his early training as an engineer allows them to hold together during their not so simple harmonic motion.

Calder can seem a bit of a lightweight, but he started out heavier. The show holds just three dozen works, most from the Calder Foundation, with a stabile or two outside on the museum's terraces. Double Cat from 1930, in carved wood, still lies face down on the floor, like a "primitive" totem that has come to ruin or taken a nap. The first mobiles make use of wood, too, along with motors and steel. One from 1941 looks like a boulder sprouting modern art. Only after World War II, with the artist approaching fifty, do they reach for the ceiling.

They also reflect his first encounters with abstraction. Their birth coincided with Calder's Paris years—the subject of a larger show at the Whitney in 2009. Background planes make some look almost like paintings, perhaps of constellations. The curators, Jay Sanders with Greta Hartenstein and Melinda Lang, throw in a few static bronze spirals as well, to point to their affinity with modern sculpture. He got to know Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian, whom he urged to experiment with motion as well. He kept returning, though, to the perpetual motion machine of New York City.

Marcel Duchamp himself coined the term mobile, with a pun on the French for motive, which makes sense. They not only move, but also derive their impetus from within. They also encourage the motives of others, like the staffer with a pole. In concerts during the show's run, musicians and sound artists like Christian Marclay can use them as settings, themes, or instruments. They may still feel caught between clumsiness and lightness—like Calder's Circus, long a fixture at the Whitney on Madison Avenue. Yet they refuse to sit still.

Your mother should know

Ma mère avait raison, it runs in French, just outside the show's entrance. Souffrir et mourir. And Louise Bourgeois shows a standing nude with a big belly, swept up in lighter curves—never entirely comfortable in her own body, but also never once willing to prettify it or to disown it. She is smiling way too much to play victim, not to mention too busy observing her surroundings and making art. By the show's end, she has become a female Saint Sebastian with a big butt. The arrows that pierce the first Christian martyr are the least of her problems, and anyway they come from her.

Who knew that she had her mother in mind with her spiders and Femme Maison ("house woman")—and not her fears? Yet she insisted that spiders take care in weaving, and her mother kept a tidy home. Then again, the spider is as scary as ever, and the mother who told her to suffer and die sounds pretty scary, too. A homebody can be homey or cut off from the world, and art for Bourgeois can an act of self-assertion or a nightmare. Louise Bourgeois's Spider (Dia:Beacon, 1997)Better still, it can be both, just as the spider's legs can morph into the tendrils of her hair. As she says in another print, "You can get twisted and tangled in your emotions."

Enjoy the tangle. A show of prints sounds like a small matter, and I shall not attempt to recap larger matters from a 2008 Guggenheim retrospective (so do give my earlier review a look). Yet it has plenty to keep one guessing, including two dozen sculptures. Bourgeois even gave her etchings the look of freehand drawing—and then supplemented their slim curves and splotches with brush and pencil. The sculptures, in turn, run to studies for other work. An exception, a chair barely visible through encircling doors as one of her many Cells, is suitably comforting or confining.

Bourgeois may not compromise, but the curators, Deborah Wye with Sewon Kang, do seek a compromise—between chronology and an arrangement by subject matter. It is not easy, given an artist who could not get enough repetition and variation. The room titles, such as "abstracted emotions" and "forces of nature," can be more cryptic than the prints, but then her thoughts and feelings always flow together. Those spider legs may spiral inward as a tightening of the chest or outward as a release. A bell jar can suggest natural history, but she may herself be the subject of an unwanted experiment. The Sky's the Limit, runs another title, but it is a difficult climb (or Montée Difficile).

The prints date mostly to the 1940s, before she turned once and for all from painting to sculpture, and to her last twenty years. They look back to her childhood in France and ahead to life in New York, not far from today's Chelsea galleries. Their obsessive repetition also connects to both Surrealism and Post-Minimalism. A small figure bulges every which way like a prehistoric fertility goddess or the female body for Kiki Smith. Segmented sculpture can rear up like a horse for Raymond Duchamp-Villon—or weigh down like dreams for Eva Hesse. Prints on parallel staff lines may evoke forgotten melodies or formalism.

Artist books also allow her to tell stories, with a command of both French and English. Her words have the simplicity of fairy tales and the complexity of a family history. She is always waiting for the man who got away—or the man who finally had the nerve to slam the door on her mother. The show concludes in the museum's atrium with larger prints and a large spider, its legs tightly encircling a steel cage. Does Bourgeois partly cover the cage with tapestry? She is still finding her way home.

BACK to John's arts home page


David Smith in white ran at Storm King Art Center through November 12, 2017, Calder mobiles at The Whitney Museum of American Art through October 23. Louise Bourgeois prints ran at the Museum of Modern Art through January 28, 2018. Related reviews cover a David Smith retrospective, his late work, Calder in Paris, and Bourgeois in retrospective.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME