The way The Whitney Museum of American Art was touting its Alexander Calder retrospective, “Hypermobility,” I was expecting a modern art show with a Fast and the Furious twist. The press releases promised “activations” of motorized sculptures that hadn’t been seen in decades and explained that Calder was the creator of the mobile – now popularly seen over babies’ cribs – many of which would be able to be seen at the show being “activated” by wind patterns in the room.
Excitedly, I imagined whirling spots of yellow and red and silver against dark blue backgrounds, all whizzing past with a Dr. Seuss-like whimsy. I picked up my phone after seeing an Instagram post from the Whitney about the opening of Calder: Hypermobility and convinced my long-time friend and former Big, Justine, to come with me to the show under the guise of wanting to see the final days of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
It was a bright Saturday morning and I found Justine in the middle of the perennially-long line outside of the museum. We caught up on each other’s lives (her, a high-powered banking maven whose long distance boyfriend had recently moved back to the city; me, a well-intentioned art blogger looking for love on fruitless dating apps) and were pleasantly surprised to find that we were able to gain free admission because of her status as a high-powered banking maven.
We got our tickets, stuffed ourselves into an elevator already bursting at the seams, and made our way to the Calder exhibit on the 8th floor, reasoning that we would work our way down through the biennial from the top.
The elevator doors opened onto a floor filled with people bumbling around tiny dotted metal sculptures. A man with a pole stood in the center and announced that he was about to “activate” a mechanized piece.
JUST IN TIME. I thought.
Justine and I hustled towards the man with the pole and were, in fact, just in time! … to catch a tiny circle of metal moving as fast as an ant running across the floor in a circular orbit around a long metal rod.
HMM. I thought.
We continued walking around the room, stopping in front of one of the larger, much-talked-about mobiles. I mentioned the supposed air-current activation to Justine, and we read the piece’s accompanying placard. From reading the placard we realized that air-current activation actually just meant existing in air – occasionally moving a millimeter here and there in accordance with the AC.
This was the air-current activation.
Trust me when I say that there was not much mobility.
Definitely not hypermobility.
And that is why, for me, Calder: Hypermobility was a bit of a let-down. This wasn’t because the Calder exhibit isn’t beautiful – because it is! The shapes are pretty, airy, colorful, light, bright, fun, and smart. This wasn’t because I don’t think Alexander Calder is an artist worthy of being shown and being seen – because he is, especially in the context of art history!
My issue with the show is that The Whitney promised it to be something that it isn’t.
For the average person with no academic or historical context for Alexander Calder – with no knowledge on “pre-Abstract Expressionist American artists who participated in and then transformed European modernism” (from Brooklyn Rail) – it’s difficult to understand why Calder or his art is important. I understand the potential need for an institution to market its wares in a way that makes them more appealing to a larger audience, but I don’t think that this is the case in this instance. I think that marketing the Calder show with such stress on the “hypermobile” aspect of his works, shows a great enthusiasm on behalf of those who are already knowledgeable about and who are, most likely, already fans of Calder and a disregard for the potential to connect with and relate to an audience who is unfamiliar with Calder or with pre-Abstract Expressionism in America in general.
And so, approximately five minutes later, Justine and I stuffed ourselves back into the elevator already bursting at the seams.
Bonus Opinion Reel: Name Suggestions for the Calder Show
Calder: Abstraction, Suspended