Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is the Aaron Copland of the art world. Like Copland’s, Calder’s work is a baffling combination of rousing all-Americanness and predictable pastiche, of genuine invention and self-indulgent repetition, of unarguable significance and mind-numbing triviality. At their best, both Copland and Calder can be exhilarating; at worst, relentlessly cheerful. There’s a reason why there are so many Calders in public places.

The mobile, that loose-limbed version of sculpture synonymous with the name Calder, is a real achievement, an authentically new addition to the language of sculpture made at a time when modernist construction was still inventing itself. (You can’t blame the artist for all those school projects and gift-shop rip-offs.) The mobile is a highly original solution to a...

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