‘Calder-Picasso’ Pairs the Art—Not the Artists—In a Decades-Long Discourse

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Installation view of 'Calder-Picasso' at the de Young Museum. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; photo by Gary Sexton)

Strolling through Calder-Picasso without paying heed to any of the wall text, one might think the two giants of modern art were great friends, so clearly do their artworks seem to echo and respond to one another over the many decades of their careers. But in fact, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso only met in person a few times. They did not correspond or trade art. Calder even wrote of Picasso’s interest in others’ work: “He comes to new shows hoping to pick up something he can use—I guess.” Touché!

But their passing personal encounters (possibly accompanied, in Calder’s case, by a wary side-eye) are just a footnote in this highly engaging exhibition, on view at the de Young Museum through May 23. That’s because Calder-Picasso presents a discourse not between two artists, but between the artworks themselves.

First staged in 2019 at the Musée Picasso in Paris and organized by Bernard Ruiz-Picasso and Alexander S. C. Rower (the artists’ grandsons), the show is arranged in thematic groupings that include both modes of making (“Folding & Piercing”) and artistic concepts (“The Void & The Volume”). Calder-Picasso juxtaposes two practices that still have plenty to say about approaches to abstraction, color, composition, the transmutation of materials and the seemingly inexhaustible creativity that makes these artists’ work so exciting to see nearly 50 years after their deaths.

Alexander Calder, 'Hercules and Lion,' 1928 on view in 'Calder-Picasso' at the de Young Museum. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; photo by Gary Sexton)

The show begins with the start of Calder’s art career: his 1926 move, at the age of 27, from New York to Paris. Picasso, of course, was already internationally known and two decades older, but the earliest Calder works at the de Young are effortlessly self-assured.

In Calder’s large hanging piece Hercules and Lion (1928), the mythological hero’s burly shoulders are emphasized with loops of wire, his feet splayed in a dynamic pose to counterbalance the attack of a curly-maned lion. In the comparatively diminutive Acrobat from 1929, a simple coil becomes the triumphant athlete’s armpit hair. These are line drawings in three-dimensional space: expressive, playful and often gently kinetic. It makes sense that Calder’s nickname in Paris was “The King of Wire.”

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At the same time, Picasso’s interest in line and movement is represented in a delicate drawing of dancing women; a painting of a deconstructed female figure; and a small, crude body twisted out of thick wire. He too, loved acrobats, but here, they are contained within the rectangular bounds of a canvas surface. Even the maquette for Picasso’s proposed monument to the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, rendered in wire and sheet metal, maintains a rigid geometry.

L: Alexander Calder, 'Acrobat,' 1929. R: Pablo Picasso, 'Figure (Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire),' 1928. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; L: Philip Charles; R: Béatrice Hatala)

Where Calder’s work is light and airy, Picasso’s is solid and dense. Calder’s renderings of figures give way to abstraction in 1931, which he described as “a more minute system of bodies, an atmospheric condition, or even a void.” Picasso’s 1932 painting Nu couché (Reclining Nude), flanked by Calder’s planet-like Croisière and triangular-based stabile Object with Red Discs begins to look less like a lounging woman and more like a collection of spheres, S-curves and wavy, radiating lines. (This effect continues in Picasso’s Femme assise dans un fauteuil rouge, which could be a painting of a bronze sculpture of Platonic solids, and the eerie woman-as-robot Femme au fauteuil rouge.)

Wall text takes care to emphasize that though some of Calder’s painted metal mobiles may look like leaves, and though one of his sculptures may have the title Wooden Bottle with Hairs (delightful!), these objects are not representational. But neither are they wholly abstract. Both artists’ work, in fact, rejects such strict demarcations. A catalog essay by Donatien Grau urges a more fluid view: “Abstraction is not a fixed format, separated from the human; quite the opposite, it is a process that keeps evolving.”

L: Alexander Calder, 'Croisière,' 1931. R: Pablo Picasso, 'Nu couché,' 1932. © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; L: Tom Powel Imaging; R: Adrien Didierjean)

In that vein, Jed Perl writes that Calder’s “radically minimalist sculptures ... grew out of his feeling for the curve of a dancer’s thigh or the angle of a shotputter’s arm.” An interest in the shapes and movements of bodies became an interest in shapes and movements. Calder did not abandon the real world in 1931, Grau and Perl both argue, he expanded our understanding of it. While Picasso’s work returns constantly to the human form (in particular, the female form), Calder’s ranges outside human experience to encompass the forces of nature and the shape of galaxies.

As their careers grew and their artworks scaled up (even as women became shapes and cosmologies became crisp arrangements of wood and wire), a surprising sense of warmth—of the artists’ hands—persists. In 1944, Calder created models for an unrealized architecture project, represented in this show by three brass and aluminum pieces. They are uncharacteristically bulky, but still made with balancing, interlocking elements that would have been cast in concrete to hover (terrifyingly) 30–40 feet above the street.

Pablo Picasso, 'Le Taureau (The Bull),' 1945, on view in 'Calder-Picasso' at the de Young Museum. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; photo by Gary Sexton)

Similarly, Picasso translated cut and folded paper into large sheet-metal sculptures that retained their hand-wrought-ness. His Woman with Outstretched Arms (1961) is angular and cheerful. Despite her pointy edges, she looks huggable.

Ultimately, the pleasure in Calder-Picasso comes from seeing connections and identifying echoes between artworks one might not have previously considered alongside each other. Calder may have revolutionized sculptures by making them move, but in this context, it’s clear that Picasso’s works are also active.

There’s the movement of his brushstrokes, and the movement of a viewer’s eye as it travels across a deconstructed form. His 11-part lithograph series Le Taureau (The Bull) repeats the image of a bull as it clarifies into just the few curves required to convey its essence. It’s a storyboard, a series of still images in a stop-motion animation about the exciting space between figuration and abstraction.

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‘Calder-Picasso’ is on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through May 23. Details here.