Discover Alexander Calder’s Circus, One of the Beloved Works at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Alexan­der Calder’s Calder’s Cir­cus, a toy the­ater piece the artist con­struct­ed between 1926 and 1931, and per­formed for decades, has the rag bag appeal of a much-repaired stuffed ani­mal who’s loved into a state of bald­ness. This charm pre­sent­ed con­ser­va­tors at the Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art with a unique set of chal­lenges. Not only were the cloth and wire struc­tures frag­ile with age, they’d tak­en a beat­ing dur­ing the peri­od when they were on active duty. Should the work be restored to its pris­tine state or should the artist’s clum­sy, on-the-fly patch jobs be pre­served as evi­dence of use?

calder circus whitney

As part of the restora­tion effort, the Whit­ney’s team  of con­ser­va­tors, archivists and his­to­ri­ans delved into cir­cus his­to­ry, learn­ing that Calder’s ring­mas­ter, tightrope dancer, bare­back rid­er, and lion tamer were all based on cir­cus stars of the peri­od.

They also leaned on two films depict­ing the work in motion, Jean Painleve’s Le Grand Cirque Calder 1927  and Le Cirque de Calder by Car­los Vilarde­bo. But with more than two hun­dred live per­for­mances, it seemed a good bet that the char­ac­ters could be manip­u­lat­ed in ways oth­er than the ones cap­tured on film. An acro­bat who was con­sult­ed agreed, but also con­clud­ed that some of the moves of which these lit­tle wire fig­ures were capa­ble would be impos­si­ble for human beings.

As archivist Ani­ta Duquette notes above, even in its restored state the Cir­cus will now be a sta­t­ic affair, part­ly from the ongo­ing effort to con­serve its del­i­cate mate­ri­als, but more because the mas­ter who appar­ent­ly took such plea­sure in bring­ing it to life is not avail­able for an encore per­for­mance.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day will take a cork-wire-and-fab­ric-scrap table­top cir­cus over a 3D CGI any old day. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.