I first learned about the monumental sculptures and the suspended mobiles of Alexander Calder during high school in the early 1970’s. My school was in western Massachusetts, and I remember some weekend trips when I saw a couple of his large outdoor sculptures being built at a metal foundry in Connecticut. To me, Calder’s work continues to suggest a delight with the world and a generous appreciation for the beauty within it.
Calder approached the creation of public sculpture in a unique way. His largest pieces are often set in the center of cities, placed on plazas between modern office buildings. We have a beautiful example here in Grand Rapids, with another large one in the same bright red color nearby in Chicago. Many of Calder’s large outdoor “stabile” sculptures provide a lyrical counterpoint to the linear and grid-like facades of the surrounding office buildings.
We know that monumental sculptures from earlier times often portray honored heroes, sometimes on horseback. Perhaps the most dramatic and newsworthy examples in our own day are some Civil War legacy moments in the deep South. I think of the one in Lee Square, New Orleans, and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis, both recently removed. In these cases, major post-Civil War statuary has been an object of contention because of negative historical associations.
By contrast, Calder’s large works are not tethered to historical occasions. Instead, they are abstract, and point to transcendental ideas rather than to memorialized national events. They don’t simply draw attention to themselves as objects of regard. Calder’s plaza sculptures do more. They lead the observer’s eyes to notice the interplay between his work and the spaces around them, as well as their contrast with nearby buildings. One doesn’t just view these sculptures; one interacts with them, and with the larger context of their placement.
Here, we must note a paradoxical aspect of all public sculpture, which indicates something more about us than it does about the art. Many people work everyday in buildings adjacent to where sculptural works are situated. But these workers are just as capable of being inattentive to these pieces of art as they are to their parking spaces, or to the doors of their offices. With the soaring heights and reaching curves of his public monuments, Calder’s sculptures are expressively shaped and tremendously uplifting. But our focus on our work and our worries, and on the practical things we need to do, blinds us! And it diverts our attention from something truly beautiful, right there in front of us.
I note all this because the same thing can happen when we encounter the first verses of John’s Gospel. In what is often called the ‘prologue’ to his Gospel, John has written a passage shaped by poetic beauty and filled with lofty theology. Yet, we have a tendency to focus on what is immediate and practical, and on what seems narrowly relevant to our everyday concerns. And so, we can ‘pass by’ this Gospel ‘work of art’ just as people hurry past the great Calder downtown, absorbed with getting to our ‘work.’ In both cases, something sublime lies before us, ready for us to engage with. But sometimes we don’t see the sublime because we aren’t really looking for it!
The image above is of Alexander Calder’s stabile, Le Grande Vitesse. This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.