Friends Who Can't Play Together

by Glenn Dixon
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 10, 2004

This time last year, we critics were drawn to the Corcoran Gallery of Art's show of sculptures by J. Seward Johnson Jr. like sharks to chum. Of all the cheap-jack 3-D blowups of impressionist masterworks, perhaps the easiest prey was a rendering of "Luncheon of the Boating Party." Behind the figures taken from Renoir's painting, Johnson had added a tableau of himself and his artist pals, raising a glass and whooping it up.

The original "Boating Party" is, of course, a cornerstone of the Phillips Collection -- where, truth be told, it serves much the same purpose as the travesty that was at the Corcoran. The difference is that the Phillips knows it's possible to pander to bourgeois fantasies of the bohemian life without stooping to actual schlock.

Whenever the Phillips isn't plugging the prescience of namesake and benefactor, Duncan Phillips -- which isn't often -- it seems that it's glorying in tales of modernist camaraderie. The pride of the museum's fall season is the latest in a long line of shows designed to elicit upper-middlebrow envy for the fortune-kissed existence of creative types -- this time Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Joan Miro (1893-1983). The Earth-shattering thesis of "Calder Miro"? They were friends.

And it's true. The American sculptor and the Spanish painter first met in Miro's studio in Paris in 1928. At the time, Calder was making playful, energetic bent-wire animals and circus performers that blurred the distinction between toys and art objects. Miro was a surrealist who'd recently emptied his canvases of clutter and was producing pictures whose spare stages were trod by a strain of stringy biomorphs.

Each artist would go on to become one of the biggest names in 20th-century art; this show concentrates chiefly on the years between 1928 and 1947. Calder's fame would first hang on his mobiles -- islands of painted metal wired together to drift in the breeze -- and later stand on his monumental public commissions, many of them "stabiles," sculptures that stayed still. Miro came to traffic in a kind of surrealism lite, ridding the heavy Freudian stuff of much of its pretentiousness but also depriving it of much of its psychological force. Miro's buggy cartoons eventually became the ultimate UNICEF art: bright, clean, simple, unforbidding and easily digestible across a range of cultures.

Over the years, Calder and Miro maintained contact. They exchanged letters and works of art, attended each other's openings, and a few months after Calder died, Miro wrote his friend an unfortunate little poem: "Your ashes will fly to the sky, to make love with the stars," and so forth.

To make the show come to life, the Phillips needs to sell the pair as sharing a unique bond. Then it has to pretend to let us in on their secret. A 1972 Miro "painting-poem" sets the tone, opening the exhibition and bracketing the catalogue, where it appears as both picture spread and jacket-flap testimonial, much of it so obscure as to be useless: "Sandy, Sandy, Sandy, do you remember the silk tie that you gave me forty years ago in Barcelona? That presentation of your Circus for ADLAN with Sert and Prats, and the presentation at the farm in Montroig." Aside from the decidedly long view taken, these breathless recollections could pass for the cliquish reminiscences scrawled by cheerleaders in a college yearbook.

Notwithstanding this silliness, "Calder Miro" is an exhibition with a single serious problem. Of the two pals, only one was a great artist -- and it wasn't Miro. Despite formal similarities in their work, such as spindly black lines and jaunty planes of color, Calder and Miro weren't really in the same game. They certainly weren't at the same level of play.

The notion of play is vital to this show, and where purposeful fooling around was concerned, Calder was a natural master -- animated, unpretentious, in love with his joyous fugues of color and shape. But the best his buddy could muster was a forced whimsicality. When a panel of wall text hails Calder's mobiles as "Like Living Miros!" we can't help but expect its companion. However helpful it might be, there's no placard explaining that Miro's paintings are "Like Dead Calders."

Perhaps that's because Miro more readily evokes not a superior sculptor, but superior painters. In no particular chronological order, Miro's output can be filed away into a fistful of folders: Dali Did It Better, Picasso Did It Better, Arp Did It Better, Klee Did It Better, and It's Not Worth Doing.

Naturally, it's in that last stage that Miro came into his own.

Elegantly disposing forms around the picture plane using a rather inelegant, inarticulate line that tightens up considerably in reproduction, he contrived a meeting of the puerile and the "primitive." However groundbreaking it might have seemed 70 years ago, today it comes across as facile and condescending. If we could cock an ear to pictures such as 1935's "Portrait of a Young Girl" and "Painting," of June 24, 1933, they'd insist, "The creative artist must be both child and savage, yes?"

At the Phillips, Miro's contribution culminates in the 30-foot-long "Mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati." A graphic panorama of blank-faced stick figures, hypnotic eyeballs, asterisk-like stars, critters, mountains and suns, it's one of this show's big curatorial "gets." But although it wins a four-page foldout in the catalogue, in the galleries, it is tellingly upstaged by even the tiniest of nearby Calders.

Calder himself succumbed to the postwar temptation to equate huge works with major works. Think of "Gwenfritz," the ignorable behemoth outside the National Museum of American History. Forgotten about it, hadn't you? Arguably the best thing about the Phillips, vis-a-vis the current exhibition, is that a truly large Calder won't fit in it.

This remains the case despite the reopening of the Goh Annex. The biggest Calder on view is "Black Beast," a still fairly modestly scaled stabile from 1940, when war goaded the sculptor into attempting an ominous tone he couldn't quite pull off. But generally the Phillips has been forced to think small, and when it comes to Calder, small is beautiful.

Washington hasn't exactly lacked for sensitive installations of small Calders. Both the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips itself have done right by their fragile counterpoise of mass and line. But any occasion to watch the subtle archipelagoes of "Red Polygons" and "Black Polygons" swivel and bob and recompose themselves in the air is a welcome one.

Calder wasn't all delicacy and refinement. In fact, one of his chief strengths is that he didn't overwork his pieces. Even the most gossamer of his contraptions bears witness to a tinkerer's trial and error -- an extra sliver of weight added here, a correction to a curve wrought there. Rarely either clumsy or prissy, they exhibit just the right combination of muscle and grace.

In contrast, a Miro almost always seems overplanned as composition and undercooked as painting. The inadvertent achievement of "Calder Miro" is that it makes plain what Sandy had that Joan lacked.

And if it offers a moral, it's this: Choose your friends wisely -- one of them may really show you up. Calder Miro will remain at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, through Jan. 23. For information, call 202-387-2151. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 7 p.m., remaining open Thursdays until 8:30 p.m.