Old Friends In A New Light

by Michael O'Sullivan
The Washington Post
Friday, October 15, 2004

The words don't appear on the catalogue or any of the accompanying promotional material, but the subtitle to the Phillips Collection's "Calder Miro: A New Space for the Imagination" -- writ large only on the wall at the exhibition's entrance -- is, in its own subtle way, the defining statement of the show.

Ostensibly designed to highlight the almost 50-year friendship and artistic interchange between American sculptor Alexander Calder and Spanish painter Joan Miro (which it does with quiet intelligence), "Calder Miro" is even better at doing something else. That's making the museum's renovated Goh Annex, which has just reopened to the public with a more welcoming ground-floor entrance, look better -- and livelier -- than it ever has before.

 Surely the art of these two modernist superstars, who are nothing if not in love with motion, is at least partly to thank for the now vertiginous experience of walking up the annex's curving staircase, which itself seems suddenly as animated as one of Calder's mobiles hanging overhead and as newly playful a piece of architecture as one of Miro's dancing canvases. As for the rest of the galleries -- which have been smartly installed with low white platforms cut on the bias to echo the off-kilter equilibrium of Calder's hyperactive sculptures -- they feel teeming with new and unfamiliar life forms. This is no mean feat in a town as familiar as Washington is with Calder and Miro. The trick, then, was to make Calder's and Miro's works seem fresh to an audience that just might have been beginning to get a little sick (come on, admit it) of their ubiquity. What "Calder Miro" does, in its juxtaposition of the artists' work, is simple (one might even say simplistic), yet highly effective. By using Calder's sculptures to underscore Miro's command of three-dimensional abstract space, and by using Miro's flat abstractions to call attention to Calder's ability to transpose 2-D pictures into a kind of floating picture plane, it invites us to see two of our oldest -- and perhaps most taken-for-granted -- friends in a new light.

It's never easy these days to make what we almost quaintly call modernism (yet which often seems all too old-fashioned) feel as radical as it once was. As much as it can, "Calder Miro" does just that, by emphasizing the sense of playfulness that, at the time they were injecting it into the world of high art, made Calder and Miro's creations so original.

As you wander around the Phillips Collection, you'll encounter something you don't find that often in museums: people laughing. Whether it's in reaction to one of Calder's wire "toys" (a tiny cow with a swollen velvet udder, for example) or at Miro's whimsical "Painting (Man With Pipe)" -- a figure midway between the Sunday funnies and the surrealism of Magritte -- there's an unstuffiness here that feels like a welcome breeze. It's a breeze that may not help stir the air around any of Calder's gently shifting mobiles (at least not literally), but it's one that goes a long way toward blowing off some of the cobwebs, not to mention the cliches, from two of the more overexposed -- and, ironically, underappreciated -- artists of the 20th century.

CALDER MIRO: A NEW SPACE FOR THE IMAGINATION -- Through Jan. 23 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-387-2151. www.phillipscollection.org. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5; Thursday evenings to 8:30; Sundays noon to 7. Admission to the special exhibition is $13; $11 for students and seniors; free for members and children ages 18 and under. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at 800-551-7328 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.