Like clouds ambling overhead or waves lumbering toward shore, Alexander Calder’s large-scale mobiles captivate, which may explain why riffs on his famous invention have become fixtures in baby nurseries. He wielded the mesmerizing power of slow, steady movement.

The National Portrait Gallery’s newly opened treasure trove of a show, “Calder’s Portraits: A New Language,” proves that the American artist’s three-dimensional portraiture, crafted out of wire, is just as spellbinding.

Like his mobiles, many of the faces Calder created hang from the ceiling, prompting leisurely rotations. Stand before a piece long enough and a face-to-face examination becomes a profile study. What’s more, these large portraits — there are 19 in the show — are really outlines devoid of volume, which means lighting overhead casts a shadow on the wall, giving the feeling that there are actually two portraits on display, moving in concert.

Some of the most fascinating pieces offer a glimpse of Calder’s creative process by showing a photograph of the subject alongside Calder’s sketched studies of that person.

A late photograph of composer Edgard Varese reveals his most evident features: thick, furrowed brows, a mouth inclined toward a slight frown, puffy under-eye bags. Calder’s drawings of the musician are naturalistic, though deconstructed. Those commanding eyebrows are rendered as heavily penciled squiggles, while the artist adds some depth to Varese’s bushy hair and angular nose. The sketched features are prominent in the 1930 wire portrait, though even more simplified. The whole piece looks like it could be crafted from a single piece of wire so that the brows, now just one continuous zigzag, lead directly into the swollen expanse under Varese’s eyes, which then loops into the Frenchman’s heavy lids.

Just as Calder’s kinetic mobiles had non-moving counterparts known as stabiles, not all the portraits on display move. Perhaps that’s one piece of evidence that Calder was constantly experimenting, even within this sub-genre of wire-based portraiture.

The delicate 1928 depiction of tennis player Helen Wills, one of the few female subjects on display, is a full-body portrayal, and even more deconstructed than many of Calder’s faces. This is a sprawling piece, with long wires representing the athlete’s lanky arms and legs. A few tight coils stand in for Wills’s fingers wrapped around the racquet handle, while one leg extends back toes pointed in a balletic arabesque.

These types of fanciful visuals populate Calder’s pieces. The face of Babe Ruth is tight-lipped with a wide, snoutlike nose; the treatment of Calvin Coolidge is utter caricature with beady eyes and a couple of swoops of hair; and Calder playfully “signed” his name in wire at the base of some portraits.

But that whimsy shouldn’t diminish the visionary imagination that made portraiture move and took the mass out of sculpture.

Calder’s 1968 self-portrait, which looms at the entry of the exhibit, is accompanied by photos of the artist at work. In one picture, he grimaces, examining himself intently in a mirror.

In another, he looks like a workman, busying himself with wire cutters, loops of metallic string slung over his shoulder. These photos seem to convey that whatever Calder inspires, from smiles to kid’s bedroom accessories, his art isn’t child’s play. Calder labored to explode artistic conventions.


Through Aug. 14 at the National
Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-1000.

Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Admission: Free.