And one more bit of D.C. Calder trivia: His last trip was to Washington to fine-tune plans for the massive sculpture now in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. When he returned to New York that evening in 1976, he suffered a heart attack and died.
What made him so popular? Those abstract sheet-metal sculptures from the 1960s and ’70s, and the kinetic mobiles he invented in the 1930s, were sophisticated but not aloof, whimsical but not silly. At a time when modernism was not entirely embraced, their mix of formal intelligence and accessibility appealed to nearly everyone.
It’s not surprising to learn that earlier in his career, Calder had invented another sculptural medium: wire used to make three-dimensional drawings in space. Using pliers and his bare hands, he twisted wire and combined it with other materials to create “Calder’s Circus,” a miniature troupe of acrobats, lion tamers, elephants, clowns and strongmen that he animated in performances in New York and Paris, where he and his wife lived until moving to Connecticut in 1933.
All told, he made a few hundred wire figures before abandoning the medium for abstraction in the 1930s. Among them were several dozen celebrities, athletes and art-world friends that are the main focus of “Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” at the National Portrait Gallery.
This exhibition — guest-curated by Barbara Zabel, a professor of art history at Connecticut College — includes some of Calder’s portraits in other mediums as well as images of his sitters by other artists, but the main attraction is his wire portraits, most of which were lent by the artist’s family foundation.
These radically new kinds of portraits are a breeze to understand and enjoy. Again, it’s Calder’s blend of invention with accessibility.
Among the subjects are Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Durante, President Calvin Coolidge and other celebrities that the artist portrayed from publicity photographs. There are full-length figures of John D. Rockefeller in knickers swinging a golf club, and tennis star Helen Wills balancing on one leg reaching for a return.