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.
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.”