DURHAM — Pulling on a pair of purple gloves, curator Sarah Schroth set to assembling two small tabletop mobiles at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art. More than mere toys, they were original works by the late Alexander Calder, godfather of the mobile.
"These are so amazing," Schroth said, balancing the tiny pieces. "Just little things he made for friends. But they're so intricate and perfect. There are a lot of fakes out there, but you can always tell a real Calder."
The pieces are part of "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy," which opens Thursday at the Nasher and shows off Calder's work as well as his legacy. And while it seems odd to say that an artist as well-known as Calder is underrated, he's never gotten his full due.
Part of that comes down to familiarity. Everyone is familiar with mobiles, going back to the ones we saw hanging in our cribs as infants. But as common as mobiles have become, they were avant-garde when Calder started making them more than 80 years ago.
"Calder emerged in the 1930s, and for many years in the art world there was a mistrust of things perceived to be 'too popular,' " said Lynne Warren, who curated "Form, Balance, Joy" when it opened at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010. "In Calder's case, there's also joy. You very rarely see art where people's first reaction is a smile. A lot of people take art so seriously that unless it furrows your brow in puzzlement, they don't consider it to be any good."
Nevertheless, Calder's work has been quite influential since his death in 1976. "Form, Balance, Joy" pairs Calder's mobiles and sculptures with the work of younger artists who show his influence.
"You get a new appreciation for every piece," Schroth said, looking at Aaron Curry's yellow and red "Deft Composition." "Like this one, it looks like interlocking Lego blocks made out of balsa wood. So much of the work of Calder and his followers is playful and evokes childhood. Photographs really don't do this stuff justice."
Brainy and skillful
Calder came by the mechanical inclinations shown in his art honestly. An engineer by training, he was a tinkerer who worked with a lot of found objects. His engineering background gave him unsurpassed skill at balancing objects, from the small tabletop mobiles up to intricate works like 1949's "Orange Paddle Under the Table" - which measures about 6 feet and has multiple stems held up by a single balance point, evoking the rudder of a ship.
A bit smaller but no less detailed work is "Performing Seal," an angular mobile with a vaguely circus-performance feel. It fits well with the adjacent piece, Kristi Lippire's "Fumigated Sculpture," a stack of brightly colored shapes made of striped cloth reminiscent of a circus tent.
That placement was not coincidental. "Form, Balance, Joy" is structured as a "conversation" between Calder and the other artists in the show.
"There have been a number of new looks at Calder, and an understanding that he really was an artist for all time," Warren said. "His contributions are extraordinary. There's intellect, rigor, beauty and innovation in his work, as well as fun."
A gifted observer
Getting all the mobiles properly set up was more complicated than the average art show. The process involved ladders and even lasers.
"Objects are always more of a challenge than two-dimensional pieces," said Brad Johnson, exhibition designer. "And this is more complicated still because you don't know which way they're going to turn once they start moving around."
Calder himself was keenly aware of his art's movement, and the way pieces would look when they moved. That was a part of his process, too. Calder was an artist who didn't just look, he saw.
"Calder was a gifted observer," Warren said. "What might take the average person years to get, he was able to take in and put back out there easily. He had an innately architectural brain, plus he was very skilled with his hands. He was really hooked up for this, and it's important for people to understand that not everyone is. You can look around all you want, but you might not see much."
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