Calder at the National Portrait Gallery

WE ARE SO FAMILIAR WITH ALEXANDER CALDER’S kinetic mobiles and painted stabiles, we forget that he was also a prolific portraitist.  Throughout his career, Calder (1898-1976) portrayed entertainment, sports, and art-world figures, including Josephine Baker, Jimmy Durante, Babe Ruth, and Charles Lindbergh, as well as colleagues , Fernand Léger, and Saul Steinberg, among others. Herewith, the museum’s introductory précis:

Typically, Calder worked in the unorthodox medium of wire, a flexible linear material, which he shaped into three-dimensional portraits of considerable character and nuance. Suspended from the wall or ceiling, the portraits are free to move; because of this mobility, they seem—like their subjects—to have a life of their own. This unprecedented exhibition will feature Calder’s work alongside contemporary documents—photographs, drawings, and especially caricatures by such artist-illustrators as Paolo Garretto, Miguel Covarrubias, and Paul Colin—and will pose questions regarding the line between fine-art portraiture and caricature. The exhibition will also shed light on an often overlooked aspect of Alexander Calder’s career, as well as on broader narratives of American culture of the twentieth century.

Courtesy Ugo Mulas Archives/ - Calder with 'Edgar Varese' & 'Untitled,' Sache, France, by Ugo Mulas


Jason Edward Kaufman’s review in The Washington Post is a worthwhile introduction to the wire-sculpted portraits that are the core of the exhibition:

These radically new kinds of portraits are a breeze to understand and enjoy. Again, it’s Calder’s blend of invention with accessibility. . . . Some are strikingly accurate — a photograph shows Leger face to face with his portrait by Calder mirroring his profile perfectly. Others are more caricature than likeness, nailing the essentials with a touch of exaggeration that often amused but never was mean-spirited.

Calder’s trick was to take a drawing whose lines describe volume in space and render the lines in three dimensions, thus restoring the volume the lines represent. The resulting “drawing in space” is perceptually fascinating because the mind fills in the volume and imagines the mass.

What makes the review particularly interesting is Kaufman’s closing take on the National Portrait Gallery itself:

But the larger issues have to do with the confused character of the National Portrait Gallery itself. This is an institution where the aesthetic properties of artworks take a back seat to their function as illustration of biography. The whimsical and inventive Calders struggle in this straitjacket.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Perhaps I should not confess this, but I have never been able to work up any interest in the National Portrait Gallery. I am not proud of my disinterest. Quite the opposite. I have always considered it an inadequacy of some kind, a blockage. But portraits concern me solely as paintings. They draw me only as works of art and evidence of a particular hand.



What Emily Dickinson, for example, looked like might be interesting. But all that matters to me is what she wrote. Her poetry has kept me company all of my life. A volume of it sits within reach every day. That is quite enough. On the broader historic scene, what do I care how Calvin Coolidge, caricatured in wire by Calder, appeared in various depictions? He was a fine president, an icon of thrift—that much-to-be mourned Puritan ethic—and a classical scholar skilled in Greek, to boot. What counts is what history makes of him, not what Calder devised. We look at Calder’s portraits to see Calder, not his subjects.

Kaufman is right to call attention to the museum’s unresolved dilemma as a broker between illustrated biography—the court portraiture of a celebrity culture—and what we are accustomed to calling fine art. However, what enters by the back door in this instance is the fact that Calder’s wire heads are cartoons in the air. There is no “fine line” here between caricature and portraits. These are, quite simply, cursory satirical sketches; pieces of play, is all. Recognition is limited to the kinds of surface idiosyncrasies any good parodist seizes upon. Conviction is limited to the most superficial aspects of likeness. These are entertaining or, as we like to say, fun. To be sure. None of Calder’s linear symbols carry a hint of character or human motive. They differ from cartoons only by being limned in three dimensions. It seems cranky to ask if that is really of any cultural significance. But the question stands up to be noticed in view of the purpose of a national portrait gallery—namely, to feature a pictorial record of figures in national history and cultural development.

It is no easy task for a democratic society do what was done previously by an aristocratic one. Think of the National Portrait Gallery in London, founded when Britain was still at the height of empire. An aristocracy was comfortable with its heroes. Our own democratic one leans toward the demotic, the popular, the informal and egalitarian. Right there is a conundrum for members of the aesthetic party.

If DC’s National Portrait Gallery does not have it all worked out . . . well, neither do I.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey