In Design of LACMA's Calder Survey, Gehry Thinks Outside the White Box

Installation view of "Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic"
(© Calder Foundation, New York, photo © Fredrik Nilsen )

The title of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new Alexander Calder retrospective, “From Avant-Garde to Iconic,” on view through July 27, 2014, could just as easily be applied to the oeuvre of its exhibition designer, Frank Gehry. Both artist and architect have gained renown for experimenting with materials and space in small-scale work, and later going on to popular acclaim for the design of monumental, civil-scale projects worldwide, with similar use of metal slabs and fragmented geometries. Though the subject on focus here is the work of Calder, it’s no great surprise that the exhibition design shares the undulating lines and jagged angles of the 48 sculptures on display — a complementary relationship overall, but not without some impediments.

“My goal was always to slow people down,” said curator Stephanie Barron, who worked closely with Gehry on developing the show’s display design to emphasize the delicate geometries of Calder’s signature mobiles and stabiles. “The average visitor spends 1.6 seconds looking at a work of art,” she explained, adding, “I thought my goal should be to get people to spend even 3 minutes looking at one piece.” To that end (and with labyrinthine effect), Gehry has mounted ample alcoves and corners inside the Resnick Pavilion’s central room, erecting walls that do indeed slow down the viewer, and also provide intimate spaces for reflection on individual and grouped sculptures. There are a great many walls throughout this exhibition — be they intersecting, parallel, curvilinear, or rectilinear — and their navigation is a task unto itself that occasionally threatens to overwhelm the artwork on view.

The retrospective is divided into three roughly chronological sections spanning 1931 through 1975: beginning from the artist’s salad days as a Surrealist ex-pat alongside Man Ray and Joan Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro in Paris, and building up to his later, ubiquitous international production of large-scale architectonic sculpture. The first section lies behind two high walls, angled inward to create an entrance. Both straight walls are attached perpendicularly to curved walls on one side, each of which are painted a shade of gray to highlight the nuanced color schemes of stabile wire sculptures; the curvature cocoons the work it backdrops, such as the kinetic 1931 “Object with Red Ball,” and creates a dialogue with opposite works, like the painterly “White Panel” from 1936. An additional straight wall bisects the center of this section, however, creating narrower subsections within the curved outer exhibition space. These feel disengaged from one another, and create a tight squeeze for viewers.

The most successful use of dramatic placement is that of “Snow Flurry,” a stark-white 1948 mobile, which is suspended behind a curve at the rear of this section within its own narrow corridor. Buoyant white sheet-metal discs balanced on lengths of thin wire appear to cascade downward in a delicate balance of interconnected but physically detached parts — revolving ever-so-slowly to produce a shadow that registers the mobile’s barely-perceptible movements. Lighting streams in from a corner near the entrance, heightening the work’s dancing shadows without obscuring the piece; the physical movement required to cross the corridor alerts the viewer to these subtle rotations. The effect is altogether stunning, due in no small part to the exceptional display design.

The second section, which features Calder’s mid-career mobiles and constellations, displays works within six radiating apse-like enclosures opening onto a central space, where the 1954 “Black Mobile with Hole” is shown in the round. Here, the decision to exhibit the hanging assemblages in semi-seclusion works well, as the shadows cast by the three mobiles don’t cross paths; however, the sheer number of subtle shadows in this small space makes it difficult to focus on the details of just one work. This, along with the overall curvature of the display design, takes some of the distinction away from the individual geometries of Calder’s pieces.

The third and final section, housed at the back of the Resnick Pavilion in the exhibition’s largest open space, focuses on civic-scale public sculptures from Calder’s mature years. Small-scale maquettes are displayed in an outlying corridor, and intermediate maquettes for important works like the 1967 “Trois Pics” and “La Grande vitesse” from 1969 occupy the central expanse. The sheer scale of these pieces demands that they be displayed sparingly, and Gehry succeeds here by eschewing walls and allowing the sculptures to breathe. The viewer breathes a bit easier here too, in the absence of walls that compete with art objects for attention.

Gehry’s exhibition design succeeds beautifully at times — and less so at others — but his insistence that architecture does indeed have a place within the museum or gallery is ultimately a refreshing refusal of the norm. The “white box” paradigm still prevails in too many institutions; if the Resnick Pavilion walls are ultimately too narrow to adequately contain both Calder’s sculpture within Gehry’s design, there are also a multitude of examples here that show how thoughtful architecture improves upon the art-viewing experience.

To see images, click on the slideshow.