'Calder, Miro' at
The Phillips Collection,
Washington, D.C.
October 9, 2004-January 23, 2005

A thin black line winds its way through the most joyful and under-celebrated exhibition of the season. Joyful, because the line can take you places you’ve never been with two familiar artists. Under-celebrated, because the prejudices of the art world are known, and the wonderful, idiosyncratic legacy of the country’s first modernist museum does not jibe with more recent, ever-expanding upstarts. No matter. One look at this show and the eyes have it. The visual delights of watching that line jump from painter to sculptor, wire to canvas, Connecticut to Catalonia and back can be electrifying.

The electric potential of exhibiting these two artists together is nothing new. Calder and Miró both contributed work to the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. For many years they also shared the same dealer, Pierre Matisse, and in 1939 Matisse presented the two artists in back-to-back shows. Matisse also provided a conduit between the two artists when separated by the Second World War.

In 1942, when MOMA’s first retrospective of Miró travelled to Vassar College, an equal number of Calder’s sculptures were added to the Vassar show. A friend noted to Calder that “your pieces gave just that fillip to the Mirós that got them off being too flat and squiggly.” Duncan Phillips made a similar discovery in pairing the two artists together through acquisitions in the early 1950s. Later, when Calder joined the Perls Gallerie in the early 1960s, Klaus Perls’s first show of Calder’s work was through the widely praised “Alexander Calder, Joan Miró.” John Canaday, writing in The New York Times, called that exhibition “just about perfect” and noted that, taken together, “the element of fantasy is heightened in Calder’s impeccably balanced structures and the element of calculation becomes more apparent than usual in Miró’s looser inventions.” Galerie Beyeler followed with “Miró, Calder” in 1972. Fondation Beyeler is the co-organizer of the current show, which first exhibited at its museum in Basel over the summer in a larger installation.

“Just about perfect” sums up my feelings after seeing these two artists together here, even as this incarnation of the exhibition has notable gaps—including Miró’s Birth of the World (1925) (back it went from Basel to the Museum of Modern Art). The Phillips has done an excellent job in mounting the work in seamless and edifying ways, from the menagerie of birds and other animals alighting up the first staircase to the newly enlarged final exhibition room, where Miró’s massive Mural Painting for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati (1947) beckons behind Calder’s mobile Twenty Leaves and an Apple (1946), his own commission for that hotel (both pieces are on loan from the Cincinnati Art Museum).

Contemporaries, friends, and often long-distance correspondents (Calder could be particularly louche in his postcards), the two artists complement each other in ways that Matisse and Picasso or Manet and Velásquez cannot. Rather than a connection based on competition or influence, here the tie that binds is formed of the elemental. In the shared line one finds a distillation of what modernism could promise, with its attention to surface, and what that promise could achieve across different media.

For both Calder and Miró, two expatriate artists from very different countries living in Paris in the 1920s, the line started with Paul Klee and his Twittering Machine (1922). By the time they met each other in 1928, the line extended through biomorphic shapes and a common interest in animals, toys, and the carnivalesque, with Miró’s Carnival of Harlequin (1924–1925) and Painting (Circus Horse) (1927) mirroring Calder’s miniature wire acrobats and his circus shows.

Calder, the son and grandson of sculptors, sought to overcome “the impression of mud piled up on the floor”—the mass of sculpture—and reduce sculpture to structural framework. In the line he found a liberation from plastic volume. Miró, likewise, used the line to challenge the classicizing impulse, as he saw it, of Mediterranean art. The line saw them through abstraction in the 1930s (by way of Mondrian). The line tied Miró’s wartime Constellation series together just as it arced out ever more gracefully in Calder’s maturing sculpture.

Oddly, as Miró turned to sculpture later in his life (Moon Bird, 1946–1949), it seemed that Calder could do Miró better than Miró could do Miró. Miró’s puffed-up, static figures achieved little of the movement and grace, so evident in his paintings, that Calder could channel in mobiles and stabiles. Little attention is given to Miró’s sculpture at the Phillips show, which concludes at the 1947 Cincinnati commissions. This is a pity, because it only highlights that what these two artists could achieve together they could not do alone.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 4, on page 51
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