Swiss historian and architecture critic Sigfried Giedion ended his 1948 book Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous Historywith a call for “man in equipoise:”
Our period demands a type of man who can recreate an equilibrium between his inner and his outer reality, who can regain control over his own existence by balancing forces that are often regarded as irreconcilable. This equilibrium can never be static but must be involved in continuous change, proceeding—like a tight-rope dancer—by a series of small adjustments that maintain a balance between him and empty space: man in equipoise.
I thought of that definition when I visited the breathtaking exhibition of Alexander Calder’s work, currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) through July 27th.
Calder, a sculptor most widely known for his mobiles and wire structures, embodies Giedion's conception of equilibrium. In Calder’s art, a variety of things stand in equipoise: balls, metal boomerangs, bits of wire, disks with holes, and amorphous fragments of some mythic world of single-cell beings hang in the balance, swaying almost invisible in the air currents of both a mechanical (air-conditioning) and a human (the breezes visitors create as they amble around) nature as we rotate around to see them in the clinical vastness of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion.
The exhibit, “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic,” starts out heavy, with works like the 1936 “Gibraltar,” in which more solid forms evoke interlocking elements of flora and fauna. As curator Stephanie Barron presents the Sculptures progress to the ever lighter, moving from solid forms hanging and rotating, to repetitive fans past a stunning sculpture evoking falling snow ("Snow Flurry," 1948) and all the way to the bravura balance of “Orange Paddle Under the Table” (1949) or “Little Parasite” (1947), which throw their fragments of geometry and biology as far as Calder could cantilever them of arching bases.
Everything depends on each other, with the weight, distance, shape, and configuration of each element designed to balance both physically and visually as you move around the pieces and watch them recompose themselves before your eyes. This is sculpture taken to its furthest extent, almost dissolving or flying away, and yet remaining to mark, measure, and activate space.
The exhibition benefits from Frank Gehry’s design of curved walls that invite you in, frame the pieces in individual apses, and lead you on in a way that almost makes you dance to the art’s rhythms. Normally I do not care much for architecture that mimics what it frames, but here the walls work beautifully—giving these delicate pieces exactly the space they need, without your eye finding the compositions interrupted by lines of walls meeting at right angles.
LACMA senior curator Stephanie Barron says that she organized the exhibition to make us think of Calder as more of an avant-garde artist. She succeeds in rescuing him both from the flood of mobiles and jokey elaborations of his inventions, as well as from a recent emphasis on the more playful character of his art. Calder is a serious artist—one of poetry and achievement.
Giedion elaborated on his concept of equipoise by pointing out that, after centuries of mechanization, standardization, and technological determinacy, it was time to bring back human and natural forms, systems, and concerns to balance our lives. Alexander Calder in the art on display here showed how we might be able to do that within the realm of abstraction that makes the equipoise he achieved all the more real and true.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.