Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Alexander Calder's mobiles can be seen in public parks and in front of museums around the country. But did you know at one time his art could also be found adorning the necks, wrists and fingers of women all over the world? A world-class exhibition featuring 90 pieces of jewelry made and designed by the famed modernist sculptor are currently on view at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Calder Miró Picasso is on view through December 6th and Calder Jewelry is on view through January 3rd.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host) I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Alexander Calder was an artist intrigued by movement and the relationship between form and space. He gave us spectacular sculptures including his own innovation of the mobile, a hanging sculpture that moves freely to form changing patterns in space. Considering Calder's enjoyment of watching art move, it may not come as much of a surprise to learn that he also designed jewelry for a very limited and exclusive clientele. Calder's jewelry, earrings, necklaces, even tiaras, are unique, beautiful and movable. Ninety of his jewelry pieces are now on view at the San Diego Museum of Art. And just down the hall, there's an exhibit of works by Calder and artists Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. The curators who put these two exhibitions together are used to working in collaboration. They are married to each other. We'll hear how they both got from New Haven to San Diego and about their latest exhibits. I’d like to welcome Julie Marciari-Alexander, deputy director of Curatorial Affairs at the San Diego Museum of Art. Julia, welcome.
JULIA MARCIARI-ALEXANDER (Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, San Diego Museum of Art): Thank you, Maureen. It’s great to be here this morning.
CAVANAUGH: And John Marciari is curator of European Art at the San Diego Museum of Art. John, welcome.
JOHN MARCIARI (Curator, European Art, San Diego Museum of Art): Thank you. Thanks for having us.
CAVANAUGH: So, Julia, tell us a little bit more about Alexander Calder’s work. What are some of his famous works and his large scale sculptures?
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Well, probably his most famous is a large stabile—and I’m going to count on John to correct me when I lie…
CAVANAUGH: Okay, good. I wish I had someone here like that.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: The most famous is in front of the East Building at the National Gallery of Art, which is the nation’s art gallery in Washington, D.C. And another very famous one is a large stabile—again, stabile meaning stationary, it does not move; it’s not one of his more famous mobile pieces—in Chicago, which we affectionately call ‘The Flamingo.’ And here in San Diego, we have just reinstalled the museum’s own large scale stabile called ‘Spinal Column,’ which is a sort of biomorphic figure, and it’s on the front steps of the museum after having been downtown in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for about a year. And we’re very proud to be displaying that in front of our newly restored façade. It’s a work from 1968 and it was commissioned, actually, by some of our great donors, Norton and Barbara Walbridge, for the museum, and was put out in 1968 originally in our sculpture garden but we are really pleased to see it on the front steps. It’s both a kind of advertisement for what’s inside the museum and Calder jewelry but also for our large permanent collection of 20th century works of art. So Alexander Calder was the son and grandson of public sculptors, so sculptors whose works were destined always to be on view in public spaces, so he had that in his blood.
CAVANAUGH: I don’t think a lot of people know about the history of Alexander Calder here for the…
CAVANAUGH: …San Diego Museum of Art, so that’s fascinating. Let’s get to – on to the jewelry because I think that’s another aspect of Calder that people are not aware of. He made these beautiful works of jewelry. Do we know what motivated him to start making these pieces?
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Well, it’s always interesting to talk about an artist’s motivation but the legend goes he began at age eight to make jewelry by working with his found objects outside, inside, to make jewelry for his sister’s dolls. So he was very interested in sculpture writ large so everything from large scale to small scale, and in that sense he’s truly an amazing sculptor who was not sort of focused on one aspect of his craft but how it permeated every level of society and every level of his daily life. And so as a small boy, sort of thinking about the playfulness of creating jewelry out of paper clips and rocks and wires in the yard for his sister’s dolls is a fascinating sort of vision of an artist at a young age, having his craft come into him through an unusual way.
CAVANAUGH: So – And tell me a little bit more about the grown-up jewelry that Calder designed. What kind of materials did he use? And would we recognize it as Calder works?
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Sometimes you can recognize it but part of the joy of his jewelry is the element of surprise. And I think John will talk a little bit more later on about the sort of world, the artistic world, and culture in which he lived, which was really one that was dedicated to this everlasting moment of surprise. But his jewelry was primarily made of brass, steel wire, and found objects. He’s sort of famous for throwing bottles up against the wall of his studio to get that haphazard distribution of glass. The pieces were not something that he formed but something that nature, through the violence, his violence of throwing it against the wall, formed. And then he would wrap those pieces of either pottery or glass or whatever, again, found objects, in steel wire. And you can see his work. You can actually see how he’s wrapping these steel wires or hammering the brass into shapes that accept these pieces of glass or pottery, so there’s a real kind of melding together of different media in these works that are just so surprising.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with deputy director of Curatorial Affairs at the San Diego Museum of Art, Julia Marciari-Alexander, and with John Marciari. He was also curator of European Art at the San Diego Museum of Art, and Julia’s husband. So, John, let me bring you into the conversation, if I may. We talked about – we’ve been talking about this Calder jewelry exhibition but there’s also an exhibition, as I said, down the hall at the San Diego Museum of Art which shows Calder works with works of Miró and Picasso. And as Julia alluded to, give us a sense of the art scene in which Calder was working because they, all of these artists, were in Paris at the same time.
MARCIARI: Well, this is, in a way, how the exhibition, the second exhibition, evolved. We signed on to bring Calder jewelry and I think we had this thought, people will wonder what this has to do with the better known Calder of the large public sculptures. And so we began with the idea of putting some Calder works from our own collection and others that are in private collections around Southern California on view, expanded it to include not only Calder but also Miró—they were fast friends; we could say more about that—and then also Picasso just because he gave this picture of Paris in the 1930s, ‘40s. Paris was, at that time, the center of the art world. It’s not by coincidence that you had the two Spaniards, Miró and Picasso, as well as the American, Calder, and other artists from really around Europe and across the world coming to Paris. It was where you went to be an artist in the ‘30s. And it’s a time of lots of different movements. Probably the most well known of the time or the most prominent of the time was surrealism, which was a literary movement as well as an artistic movement. And that accidental quality of art that you alluded to with the breaking of the bottles, with the finding of the objects or these whimsical, surprising shapes, that’s all, in a way, a figment of surrealism which totally, totally imbued culture in Paris, not simply visual culture but culture writ large at the time. And so Calder is really responding to a much larger cultural movement.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I knew that Miró and Picasso were in Paris in the ‘30s but it came as a surprise to me that Alexander Calder was there, too, and also a surprise that Calder and Joan Miró were so close. Tell us a little bit more about the relationship, that relationship between these two artists.
MARCIARI: Well, they met shortly after Calder arrived in Paris. Miró had been there for a couple of years already at that time. And Calder came on the scene with the Calder Circus, this now famous assemblage, a circus in miniature, also made of twisted wire and, thereby, analogous to the jewelry, which he would perform. It was essentially a kind of playful performance piece and, you know, therein lies all the surrealism you need. This great big bear of a man, Sandy Calder, animating his miniature circus made of wire. And Miró loved it, and they became fast friends. There is an amazing correspondence back and forth that persisted for the rest of their lives. Miró would go home to Spain for half the year, Calder would go home to Connecticut. They both maintained studios in Paris and would keep going there, would meet up a few times a year. But they just had a personal and artistic affinity which they recognized early, and that persisted for forty years.
CAVANAUGH: And physically they were sort of an odd couple, weren’t they?
MARCIARI: It must’ve been quite a sight to see. Calder was this sort of, as I said, a great big bear of a man, the sort of person who, even if you saw him walking down the streets in Europe today, could only be an American. He had to stand out at the time, something that he emphasized further by wearing an orange suit. So this great big man in an orange suit wandering around with Miró, who’s a rather slight man, dapper man, still then fond of the traditional bowler hat. So the idea of them walking around, it must’ve been…
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Itself an element of lasting surprise.
CAVANAUGH: That orange suit in itself.
MARCIARI: Exactly. So, you know, there is an element of real fun, of a joy for life, a kind of mirthfulness in every aspect of their relationship, in the art, in the correspondence. Some of the jewelry that Calder made was for Miró and for Miró’s wife. Unfortunately, we don’t have those pieces in the exhibition. They had to be returned to the Miró Foundation. But they’re in the catalog, and many more pieces quite like that are still in the exhibition.
CAVANAUGH: I did want to ask you, Julia, what – who – where did – how did Calder make these pieces? Who did he make them for? I know that they were sometimes for his wife and for his friends’ wives and so forth. Who else got a gift of a piece of Calder jewelry?
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Well, it’s interesting. He – I think one of the things that is very important to me is that we recognize the ambition of his artistic endeavor and that it’s not simply about play, but about play within the context of the most serious academic art historical tradition. And the idea of gift giving was very much part of that tradition. Kings and their artists would exchange gifts on New Year’s Day. And some of the works that we have that he made for his wife were actually given to her on New Year’s Day, signaling his sort of interest in her both as, you know, his lover, his friend, his muse, in the same way that Holbein, for instance, gave Henry VIII the most famous portrait of his son, Edward VI, on New Year’s Day as his tribute to his king.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: So there’s a really beautiful artistic ambition that is both deeply personal and deeply felt but also really high-minded. And so some of these gifts that were for individuals were for very similarly minded individuals and some of them, frankly, were for purchase. He did sell his jewelry from the get-go. He had, in his first art exhibition in 1929, which he showed jewelry, he did have pieces for sale. They were very popular among the sort of salon culture and I mean that in the 18th century term, women who were getting together in Paris to have these highly charged intellectual evenings. In the 1920s and ‘30s, they were very popular, the jewels were very popular with these women, and they purchased them at these stores. I think that in the – or, these sales. I think some of them were sold for nine and ten dollars in 1930. And now that is really not at all how much they cost. There’s a great…
CAVANAUGH: That’s wonderful.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: …story of someone going to a fair and saying, oh, I’ll have that—recently—and they said, well, how much is it? And the price was two hundred and she said…
MARCIARI: It was four hundred.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: …oh, I’ll take it. And then she realized that that was $400,000.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, yes.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: So it’s a different – it’s a different world now. But, you know, these were objects that were for sale. The one thing that is different from many of the other great jewelry makers of the century, Cartier, Tiffany, who also made works by commission and also for sale, a big difference is that he never editioned his jewelry.
CAVANAUGH: One of a kind.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: And so each of the works in the exhibition and each of the jewelry, each of the pieces of jewelry that we have in the world are one of a kind. So it’s a fantastic chance to see ninety one-of-a-kind objects. And I did want to mention that one of my favorite pieces in the show is a big, giant brooch that incorporates brass and steel wire with pieces of glass, and it was made for the wife of the surrealist filmmaker – the wife’s name is Jeanne Bunuel and so it’s a great kind of surrealist piece of jewelry that literally, if you put it on, would fall off your shoulder.
CAVANAUGH: So they – just because they’re works of art doesn’t mean they’re always easy to wear.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Indeed. And, in fact, the curator of the exhibition, Mark Rosenthal, has claimed that this is not wearable art, it’s unwearable jewelry.
CAVANAUGH: Let me…
MARCIARI: There are…
MARCIARI: There are other stories, too, about women wearing these great necklaces and finding that their silk dress had been completely shredded by the rough joins of it. Yeah, it’s – it’s a once – it’s a one-time performance piece, in a way, to wear it.
CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. I’ve seen some of the pictures on the website of at least one necklace and it looks terribly difficult to wear. Is that part of the surrealist sort of idea of just sort of taking an object and just moving it around into what you want it to be even if it doesn’t make practical sense?
MARCIARI: It is. Part of the project of surrealism was taking art off the gallery wall, out of the frame and making it take over life, change life, bring life to a different place. Rather famously, Miró, early in his career, was reacting against the adoption of art by the bourgeois so he would walk around saying, I will smash Picasso’s cubist guitar, by which he meant I’m not interested in making the kind of art that is acceptable to hang in a bourgeois living room. And so they were interested in performance pieces and that could be the Calder Circus but the jewelry is the same – a figment of the same idea. Miró made toys as did Torres Garcia, an artist from Latin America, the subject of an exhibition we have coming up in a few months. The idea being that art was part of life, art was to transform life and not simply be something frozen in a frame, stuck on a wall, and left there only for the consumption by a few.
CAVANAUGH: I want to mention, too, as part of the Calder, Miró, Picasso exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, there is a major Picasso that’s recently gifted to the museum. Tell us about this. It’s a 1949 painting titled “Portrait of a Seated Woman.”
MARCIARI: It is a major gift although at the moment it’s a promised gift, that is to say shortly after the exhibition ends it will go back to the owners and will eventually come back to the museum as a part of the permanent collection, so therein lies an advertisement to see it before December when it will go back to the owners. It’s a rather large portrait made in 1949, called “Portrait of a Seated Woman” but recognizable as a portrait of Francoise Gilot. Picasso’s art, more than almost any artist before him, is about Picasso and his love life. And, rather famously, there’s the series that deals with Marie-Therese, there are the Dora Maar pieces. Francoise Gilot became his lover, his muse, his model, his companion—there’s no adequate label to describe their relationship—in the early ‘40s. This portrait was made a few months after the birth of their daughter, Paloma.
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: A great jewelry designer.
CAVANAUGH: Jewelry designer.
MARCIARI: A great jewelry designer in her own right. Yeah, suddenly everything comes back around. The first piece in the exhibition, or the first piece one encounters, is a late Picasso etching of a circus and, of course, Picasso began with “The Circus.” The themes all link together, which is, in a way, how the show is organized. But the portrait is a major piece of art and in a way, for me, it’s the kind of Picasso I love best because he was beyond cubism in either of its phases. He’s beyond surrealism. He’s not trying to make a movement, he’s not trying to do anything other than create a portrait. It’s an exercise in pure painting in a way. And so, yes, it has some of the weird shape shifting faceted changes that one associates with cubism but it’s not about a movement, it’s about painting. And a very personal picture, signed, dated, clearly recognizable as a portrait of Francoise Gilot.
CAVANAUGH: Well, in talking about describing relationships, I can’t let the two of you go without talking about the fact that you have a very interesting personal story about coming to San Diego as a married couple, both working in curatorial positions at the San Diego Museum of Art. Julia, how did you both get – end up here in San Diego? I mean, how did you both get here and work for the Museum of Art?
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Derek Cartwright, who has just recently moved to the Seattle Museum of Art, he had been looking for a deputy director for Curatorial Affairs, and the woman who he had doing the headhunting for that position called me up and said, you know, there’s this great job. And I said, well, you know, I’ve got a husband, I love my job, I’m not really looking. And in the end, we came out for an interview, and I’m from Southern California and so it was this super – put everything in the supercollider and I really saw the potential of this institution. I very much wanted to work with Derek and I had the privilege of working with him for a year. And I also said on the very first evening, you know, that I want this job but I want you to know that I have – I just happen to be married to one of the great curators of Italian and Spanish painting in the nation, and you should look at him because there is a job that fits his abilities almost perfectly, which was the curator of European Art position that he now sits in. And I really find it a tribute to Derek and the senior staff and the board that they took the chance of hiring a married couple. When we first came and I – well, when I said to my former colleagues at the Yale Center for British Art that I was doing this and that John would be working on the curatorial team, one of my former colleagues said to me, so, is he reporting to you? And I said, no, he doesn’t report to me. And he said, well, that was your first mistake.
CAVANAUGH: You both came from New Haven, is that correct?
MARCIARI: We did. They – We both – There are two art museums at Yale University. There’s the Yale University Art Gallery, which is the university museum where I worked in the Department of Early European Art, and there’s the Yale Center for British Art, somewhat known as Paul Mellon’s museum, where Julia had been one of the deputy directors. And as Julia said, the two jobs that were open, the deputy director position, the curator of European Art, really couldn’t have fit us any better. It seemed almost fated that this was the way it was meant to work out. And it was exciting. It was exciting to come and hear Derek’s vision. It was exciting to meet the senior staff that he had put together. It was thrilling to walk into the museum and find this collection that was far, far greater than either of us had anticipated, far greater than its reputation beyond San Diego and I think probably in San Diego as well.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you quickly because we are running out of time, Derek Cartwright, of course, the director of the San Diego Museum of Art, announced he’s leaving. He has left. And I wonder what your reaction is to that and what you see for the future of the museum now?
MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: I see a great future ahead, largely because of the way in which Derek set out the foundation for his vision, and we are members of a large team, a large staff, and we work with a great board of trustees and we are all – we all share a vision which is both Derek’s vision and our own vision. And so we’re really moving on the path forward and I think that it – we all feel that it’s been a great privilege to work with Derek but that he left us in a much stronger place than we – than many people think we are in, and we really are moving forward. So it’s a great moment for us. We’re taking off. And it’s a wonderful institution, and it’s a great city.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, I gotta leave it there.
CAVANAUGH: Can’t improve on that. I have to thank you both. Julia Marciari-Alexander and John Marciari, thank you for coming in, telling us about your exhibits that are now on display at the San Diego Museum of Art. Let me tell everyone, Calder Miró Picasso is on view through December 6th and Calder Jewelry is on review – on view at the San Diego Museum of Art through January 3rd. And if you’d like to post your comments about our segment here, you can always go online, KPBS.org/TheseDays. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.