Out of the Calder and into the Fire

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Whitney’s Renzo Piano building is marvelous, its sleek, stripped-down galleries breathtaking without coming close to overshadowing the art. But it’s still in the Meatpacking District, so rather than serving as a respite from that betouristed Gehenna, as the galleries a few blocks north do, the museum has become a victim of everything wrong with its new neighborhood. The same gawking hordes that make walking along the High Line so aggravating have colonized the Whitney, and we all suffer for it.

The museum’s new exhibition, “Calder: Hypermobility”, does a pretty good job of illustrating the museum’s dilemma. Situated in the foyer of the eighth-floor Studio Cafe, the show is not so much a probing exploration of an important American artist’s work as it is a distraction for hungry museumgoers waiting for tables. A full wall of the exhibition is exposed to the Cafe, giving art lovers the treat of seeing Calder’s Aluminum Leaves, Red Post (1941) and some guy bite into his Duck Meatloaf Banh Mi at the same time.

A charitable observer could argue that the noise of the restaurant’s perpetually-grinding espresso machines complements the mechanical art on display. “Hypermobility” is concerned with the kinetic properties of Calder’s sculptures—not just the movements of his famous mobiles, but his lesser-known motorized works too. Every two hours, an “activator” (the museum’s term, not mine) in a grey lab coat comes and puts the sculptures in motion. But as he does his rounds—turning on the mechanical works with a tiny remote control, moving the mobiles with a long stick that makes him look like a Buddhist monk—it’s hard not to be disappointed by how rinky-dink the whole thing appears. Half-circle, Quarter-circle, and Sphere (1932) is an artfully designed metronome, with a white stick topped by a red ball and a crooked wire moving back and forth. Red Panel (1934) features a small metal ball that slowly rotates in the corner of a wooden board like a jack-in-the-box. Bifurcated Tower (1950) and Hanging Spider (1940), which the activator pokes with his stick, don’t do anything that wind doesn’t already make them do.

In short, these activations, along with the exhibition’s central premise, are kind of a dud. Only a few of the sculptures on display can even be moved, and they’re pretty disappointing. Get rid of those, and the show is really just a mishmash of Calder sculptures without any clear theme, except, maybe, getting the Meatpacking crowd to post videos on Instagram. Which they do, dutifully—jostling one another for a less obstructed camera angle, dashing from piece to piece so they can be at the front when the next whirligig start.

And then, as soon as they’ve come, they’re gone. During a visit on June 30th, the activator arrived at 2 PM to a packed gallery. By 2:15, when he had finished, the room was almost empty. Off to another Snapchat-ready piece, or the High Line, the Chelsea Market, the Standard Biergarten, or some other experience on the tragedy of the commons tour.

Museums must change with the times but they also suffer when they forget why they were created in the first place, when they put their art in restaurants and offer up wind-up toys for people who look at the world through their phones. There isn’t a cultural institution today that isn’t equally guilty, and it’s unfair to criticize the Whitney for trying to attract crowds. But there needs to be a balance. This is something that The Whitney has generally been good at, whether through using big, crowd-pleaser paintings to anchor galleries full of tender small-scale works, or through thoughtful exhibitions of the spectacular, as in its recent exhibition of Immersive Art. But balance is key. Without it, we’re all just tourists, deciding whether to look at the art or eat at the Studio Cafe.


“Calder: Hypermobility” is on view through October 23.


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