Calder show a celebration of life

Gallery: St. John's College exhibit showcases the famous artist's varied works in Mitchell Gallery.

Arundel Live

April 10, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Life may indeed imitate art, but the deal is commutative. Art also imitates life.

And the century just past, with its world wars, holocausts, nuclear explosions, five-year plans and media-fed mass culture, has inspired a body of art as depressing, angst-ridden and emotionally raw as the era that spawned it.

That's why the varied works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) are such a delight. Ingenuity, clarity and a spirit of play animate the prints, sculptures, mobiles, etchings, lithographs, woolen tapestries and book illustrations churned out with such regularity by the Pennsylvania-born artist, whose breezy inner vision did so much to leaven the heaviness of his aesthetic time.

That joie de vivre is the animating theme of Celebration of Life: Graphic Works of Alexander Calder, a collection of 26 handsome Calder pieces on display at the Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis through April 18.

This lovely aggregation of floating butterflies, whimsical elephants, pyramids, spirals and other boldly colored geometric shapes is on loan from the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in eastern Pennsylvania.

Calder's family background makes one wonder if he had any choice but to become an artist. His mother was a painter, and his father a sculptor with several major works of American civic art to his credit. It was his grandfather who sculpted the statue of William Penn still perched so majestically atop Philadelphia's City Hall.

It appears the young Calder was something of a dabbler, trying his hand at engineering, sales, drafting and map-making before charting his career course with authority in 1923 when he joined the Art Students League.

In 1926, he published Animal Sketches, a set of drawings based on his visits to zoos and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Three years later came Calder's first one-man show in Paris, and the artist whose metal sculptures, mobiles, tapestries, prints, posters and jewelry designs would win him so many honors was off and running.

A stroll around the Mitchell confirms that the names Calder selected for his works could be as unaffected as the works themselves.

Nostalgic Flight offers a childlike image of yellow moons enclosing colorful ladybug shapes.

Blithe spirits also are on display in Snail and Fish, where the aquatic figures smile as they swim. Calder's elephants, silhouetted in red, purple and gray, look pretty chipper themselves.

Late in his life, the artist began designing tapestries, which were woven in France, where the art had been practiced since the Middle Ages.

At first designed on sheets of paper, Calder's evocative shapes and bright colors were dyed onto wool imported from Australia.

His Spiral, created in 1976 and arguably the most striking piece in the entire collection, is one of three such tapestries on display.

"If you like what you gave them," said the obliging Calder of the weavers who transferred his designs to fabric, "you have to like what you get back."

The Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College serves the greater Annapolis area with the only fully secured, climate-controlled fine arts facility in Anne Arundel County.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and on Friday evenings from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. There is no admission charge. "Celebration of Life: Graphic Works by Alexander Calder" will be on display through April 18.

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