Alexander Calder

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

 

The Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue, NYC (1959)

 

What a wonder it is, sitting there so apparently out of sync with its neighboring buildings. Instead, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum seems to reach out toward the great park across the avenue. Critics sometimes lament the museum’s apparent disconnect with its context. Yet, others – I among them – rejoice at that discontinuity, given its so many linear, box-like surrounding buildings. When commissioned to add a companion tower adjacent to Wright’s spiral masterpiece, rather than compete with it, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates produced an astute counterpoint in a large rectangular structure with a neutral limestone facade. The tower beautifully keeps our focus on the lyrical curving form of the original museum, as well as expresses continuity with nearby buildings.

Like many, I find when visiting this building a remarkable refreshment of spirit, and experience within it an enhanced sense of life. For the museum provides a context fitting our inclination toward what is spiritual, not merely to what is material. As with the earlier precedents of Wright’s Unity Temple, Oak Park, and the Johnson Wax headquarters, Racine, it surely has to do with Wright’s attention to natural illumination from skylights. Whether or not one walks from the top level down at the Guggenheim, as Wright envisioned, or from the ground level up, the visitor’s eyes are drawn up within the swirling interior space to the light above, gracing the whole through the great oculus of the circular skylight.

An evident facet of this highly sculptural building stems from its late 1950’s time of construction – how the exterior walls of the concrete spiral ramps reveal a degree of unevenness in their outward surfaces (top photo). This was and is a humanly made building, reflecting our highest aspirations in terms of design while also some of the limits of our historic craftwork with materials.

Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is appropriately ranked among examples of world-class architecture. Both lauded and criticized at the time of its opening, it has taken decades to be matched by the work of another master of the medium, Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. Like Wright, he could envision and then design structures exploring the plasticity of modern materials and building methods. It is well to recall that Wright was in his 70’s when he began to create the plan for the Guggenheim (in 1943), and near his 92nd birthday when it was completed in 1959, delayed by the postwar recession.

Guggenheim Museum, Interior View (note the red Calder mobile)

Paul Horgan, while reflecting on the buildings of John Gaw Meem, offered words I find so fitting to Wright’s achievement on Fifth Avenue. “As one of the only great arts to offer physical shelter not only to [our] works but also to [our] spirit, architecture can convey directly the sense of an enclosing confirmation of [our human] desire to believe in a sustaining power beyond [ourselves].” With the Guggenheim, Wright not only achieved a magnificent context for the display of art, but also created what has become “a temple for the human spirit” (a phrase used in the terms of his commission).

This building does not stand alone. An amazing aspect of Wright’s architectural career is not only that he had the visionary imagination to conceive of so many remarkable structures, the audacity to commend them to potential clients, and the providential support for his proposals from so many well-funded benefactors.

With the Guggenheim, beauty ‘incarnate’ is embodied in construction materials and in a form that transcends what we typically expect now in architecture. Here we encounter a building that nurtures aspiration for what may be next in life. It may even prompt an unexpected experience of hope and joy for what it means to be human.

 

The Beauty of Balance

 

 

Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) featured a show of the work of Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. The two were exact contemporaries and were acquainted with one another.

Like Picasso, Calder became famous for the wide range of his artistic expression. Most memorable are his ‘mobiles,’ beloved by many. These floating sculptures are the beautifully balanced hanging assemblies of wire and pieces of sheet metal. Unlike the example above, they are usually covered in bright colors or flat black paint.

His ‘stabiles‘ are floor-based sculptures that incorporate flat surfaces arranged in three-dimensional relationships, both vertical and horizontal. Some are wonderfully fluid given the curved shape of their panels, while others are geometric, more linear, and ‘edgy.’

The above photo features what I think was the final study model for La Grande Vitesse, his huge lyrical stabile which now sits on a principal downtown plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan (which I have featured before.)

Obviously, Calder’s mobiles -especially the most successful ones- depend upon an engineer’s sensitivity for balance, while featuring his not-easily-imitable sense of proportion, shape, and color. He also blessed his mobiles with a capacity to drift quietly with the slightest breezes.

Less obvious is how the element of balance features in his stabiles. This involves the balance between vertical and horizontal elements; it also includes the balance between curved edges and flat surfaces. And finally, his stabiles incorporate the most subtle balance of all. This is the balance achieved by the artist when providing a cohesive experience of visual excitement for the viewer who sees each aspect of a stabile sculpture while walking around it.

Calder has been quoted as saying this: “The admission of approximation is necessary, for one cannot hope to be absolute in his precision. He cannot see, or even conceive of a thing from all possible points of view, simultaneously. While he perfects the front, the side, or rear may be weak; then while he strengthens the other facade he may be weakening that [one which was] originally the best. There is no end to this. To finish the work he must approximate.”

Surely, this is equally true of the spiritual life. Many of us are tempted toward the ideal of some kind of ‘perfection,’ surely never attainable by fallen humans such as ourselves. Yet, that pursuit of a kind of absoluteness and or precision, however attractive, is not true to our lives as pilgrims on an unfolding journey. Such a journey is an ancient and compelling metaphor for our lives, in Scripture and in our tradition.

So, yes, in the abstract, there are some things that are absolutely true in principle. But we so often seek and pursue them while ‘walking in circles,’ admiring the beauty, goodness and truth of what is before us. And yet, our grasp of, and appreciation for, the whole is often based on a single, or a limited number of perspectives. We then are kept from seeing the fullness of the many marvelous gifts given to us by and through our Creator’s grace-filled pursuit of us. Seeking and then finding a balance between sometimes competing perspectives and concerns can be an important step toward perceiving beauty when otherwise it may be hard to see.

I can think of no finer balanced-juxtaposition of these several elements within Calder’s extensive portfolio than the one depicted above, temporarily exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A mobile gently moves above you, while you stand. You gently move around a stabile while it stands.

 

{my photograph; copyright reserved} / Regarding the above quote from Calder, remember that while his choice of pronouns may not be what we prefer, they were characteristic of what was considered ‘proper English’ and assumed to be fully inclusive at that time.

To See Spiritual Light

 

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 hereOther 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.

Engage with Beauty

Enclosed Mountains and Clouds_John Baggaley

 

Alexander Calder approached the creation of public sculpture in a unique way. His largest pieces are often set in the midst 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. Unlike them, Mountains and Clouds, in the Washington Hart Senate Office Building, is painted in matte black. This works well against the white marble and clear glass in the atrium where it stands. Each of these three “stabile” sculptures provides a lyrical counterpoint to the linear and grid-like facades of the office buildings. Mountains and Clouds is unique in that it also involves one of Calder’s mobiles, suspended from the atrium ceiling.

We know that monumental sculptures from earlier times often portray honored heroes, standing or on horseback. By contrast, Calder’s large works are abstract, and don’t simply draw attention to themselves. His 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 engages with them, and with the larger context of their placement.

Here, we must mark 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 around where these sculptures are situated. But they are just as capable of being as inattentive to these pieces of art as they are to their parking spaces or to the doors of their offices. With the stabiles’ soaring heights and reaching curves, Calder’s works are expressively shaped and tremendously uplifting. But our focus on our work and our worries, and 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. 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 go right by this Gospel ‘work of art’ just as people hurry past the great Calder downtown, absorbed with getting to their offices. In both cases, something sublime lies before us, waiting for us to engage with it. But sometimes we don’t see it because we aren’t really looking for it!

 

Alexander Calder, Mountains and Clouds, 1976 (installed 1986),  in the Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. The beautiful photograph is by John Baggaley, and is used by permission. For a link to the website of this talented photographer, click here.

For further reflection on Calder’s stabiles, especially his Mountains and Clouds, in relation to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, click here.