The current Alexander Calder exhibition at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario is about as light-hearted an affair as you can imagine. Spend a few moments in the projection area where Jean Painlevé's 1953 film of the Calder Circus is on view – a loving document of Calder's miniature, handmade replica of a circus complete with a sword-swallower, a tamed lion, a dancing elephant and trapeze artists made from wire, cloth, rubber hoses, string, bits of wood and other found objects – and you will see young and old, rich and poor, male and female united in a common experience of Calder's surprising, comic and metamorphic vision. Everybody's smiling.
This might lead one to assume, as many have done, that Calder is a lightweight, art-historically speaking. But the Whitney Museum of American Art's Joan Simon and Brigitte Leal of the Centre Pompidou – the curators of Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933– would argue with that assertion. Levity and shallowness are not the same. Calder is serious play.
Best known for the creation of the mobile (a term coined by Marcel Duchamp, a friend of the artist), Calder started his working life as a mechanical engineer, mastering the laws of physics that would animate many of his sculptures to come. Defecting from engineering, he sought work as a commercial illustrator, working for many of the major periodicals in New York and, in his free time, sketching animals in the Bronx and Central Park zoos. Both of Calder's parents were artists, but he was 28 before he took the plunge into fine art, heading to Paris to immerse himself in the leading avant garde movements of the day. There, he floated between Surrealist circles (where he was befriended by Duchamp, Man Ray, and Joan Miro) and members of the loose-knit group Abstraction-Création (Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Jean Arp), crisscrossing the Atlantic on frequent trips and developing the pivotal body of work that this exhibition captures.