• Calder’s Precious Metals: Who Needs Diamonds?

    Date posted: December 18, 2008 Author: jolanta
    It’s become a cliché to describe statement-making jewelry as “wearable
    art,” but no other term quite captures the personal adornments made by Alexander Calder.
    His earrings, necklaces and bracelets were mini-mobiles that dangled
    from the wrists, necks and earlobes of sophisticates like Peggy
    Guggenheim and Jeanne Moreau. The Whitney Museum’s
    current Calder show features room after room of his playful wire
    sculptures but none of the 1,800 pieces of jewelry he made over the
    course of his career. Fortunately about 90 of these pieces are being
    given their own exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the first museum
    show to focus on Calder’s jewelry. (The New York Times, December, 11, 2008.)
    Image

    Karen Rosenberg

    Image
    Courtesy of The New York Times.

    It’s become a cliché to describe statement-making jewelry as “wearable
    art,” but no other term quite captures the personal adornments made by Alexander Calder.
    His earrings, necklaces and bracelets were mini-mobiles that dangled
    from the wrists, necks and earlobes of sophisticates like Peggy
    Guggenheim and Jeanne Moreau.

    The Whitney Museum’s
    current Calder show features room after room of his playful wire
    sculptures but none of the 1,800 pieces of jewelry he made over the
    course of his career. Fortunately about 90 of these pieces are being
    given their own exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the first museum
    show to focus on Calder’s jewelry.

    The works in “Calder Jewelry” are wire sculptures too, only smaller,
    though not much smaller, really, than the components of Calder’s
    “Circus” at the Whitney. They are made of the same materials — mostly
    brass and steel, with bits of ceramic, wood and glass — and are just as
    self-consciously clever. All are one-of-a-kind objets d’art. Calder had
    many opportunities to sign off on reproductions, and always refused
    (much to his dealers’ chagrin).

    “Calder Jewelry” comes to New
    York from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. It was
    organized by Jane Adlin, an associate curator at the Met, with the
    Norton adjunct curator Mark Rosenthal and the Calder Foundation
    director (and Calder grandson) Alexander S. C. Rower. It can be
    difficult to exhibit jewelry, even Calder’s resolutely unprecious
    metals, without creating a boutique atmosphere. Smaller objects like
    brooches and hair combs are clustered in vertical display cases, and
    even the larger necklaces get lost in the high-ceilinged galleries.
    Photographs of Calder’s jewelry on the body are scarce in the
    galleries, though numerous in the unwieldy catalog.

    Still, the
    show has an intimate, even familial quality; Calder made many of the
    pieces as gifts for friends and relatives. Mr. Rower recalls that when
    he was a child, his grandmother’s dressing table “always seemed a
    mysterious altar.”

    Two cases are devoted to the jewelry Calder
    made for his wife, Louisa, beginning with the couple’s engagement ring
    — a simple spiral of gold wire. Calder always returned to the spiral
    for birthday and anniversary gifts; he seems to have adopted this late
    Bronze Age motif as a personal talisman.

    He was also fond of
    initials and monograms, as evidenced by the pieces he made for friends
    like the curator Dorothy C. Miller and the art dealer Marian Willard
    Johnson. These objects are the equivalent of the wire portrait heads at
    the Whitney: bits of customized whimsy. More interesting are the pieces
    with a Surrealist bent, like the pair of earrings that spell out Joan Miró’s piquant declamation “A bas la Méditerranée” (“Down With the Mediterranean”).

    Calder’s
    jewelry appealed to women with avant-garde tastes who liked to make a
    dramatic entrance. Mary Rockefeller was said to have required a little
    elbow room when she wore her Calder necklace to art openings. Peggy
    Guggenheim boasted in her autobiography, “I am the only woman in the
    world who wears his enormous mobile earrings.” Two pairs of those broad
    and pendulous earrings are in the exhibition; they are certainly not
    for everyone, or at least not for the woman who might be afraid to
    inflict flesh wounds while air-kissing.

    Consider the spectacular
    object nicknamed “The Jealous Husband,” from 1940. In this oversize
    necklace, a breastplate of flat curlicues of hammered wire rises into
    barbed coils at the collarbone. Hilton Kramer, writing in The New York
    Times Magazine in 1976, noted the work’s “humor of mock aggression and
    shameless self-assertion.”

    Other necklaces suggest less extreme
    forms of body armor. An aptly titled “Chainmail” necklace from 1940
    features hand-linked circles of silver wire. An untitled piece from
    1942 might be described as brass knuckles for the shoulders.

    Calder’s
    necklaces and tiaras could take up a lot of space without looking
    heavy. His “Flower Necklace” (1938) is a chain of delicate silver
    leaves attached to a daisylike blossom, all fashioned from looped wire.
    In “Crown” (1940), clusters of brass “ivy” rise from a simple headpiece.

    Craftsmanship
    is anything but mysterious; nearly every piece consists of hammered,
    bent or chiseled wire. Pliers marks are visible on the unpolished
    surfaces. Calder rarely used solder; when he needed to join strips of
    metal, he linked them with loops, bound them with snippets of wire or
    fashioned rivets. Some of his intricate-looking cuff bracelets, with
    wavy lines and zigzags, are little more than single pieces of twisted
    and flattened wire.

    In both technique and design, Calder aspired to be “primitive.” Like Picasso,
    he had seen and collected African sculpture in Paris. Ms. Adlin points
    out, in her catalog essay, that Calder’s bracelets and neck collars
    with parallel strips of wire bear a striking resemblance to the beaded
    corsets worn by members of the East African Dinka tribe. Other
    comparisons will come to mind, particularly if you wander through the
    Met’s galleries of Celtic or Pre-Colombian art.

    Calder’s forms
    weren’t new, but his sense of the body as a kinetic sculpture was
    liberating. He convinced us that art can be precious, and jewelry need
    not be. (The New York Time, December, 11, 2008.)

    www.nytimes.com

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