U.S. museum debut for Calder Picasso at the de Young

Feb 2, 2021

Interior of art gallery

Installation of Calder-Picasso at the de Young museum, San Francisco 2021. Photography by Gary Sexton. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

de Young museum \ March 6 – May 23, 2021

Two giants of modernity meet at the de Young museum

SAN FRANCISCO—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are thrilled to present Calder-Picasso at the de Young museum. Conceived by the artists’ grandsons Alexander S. C. Rower and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, it is the first major museum exhibition to explore the formal resonances between the works of Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso, two of the most innovative and influential artists of the 20th century. In more than 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs—including many iconic works—the exhibition presents a compelling presentation of the artists’ exploration of the void, or the absence of space, which they defined from the figure through to abstraction.

Calder-Picasso provides an in-depth investigation of the synchronicities between two of the most influential artists of the 20th century,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We are delighted to share this fascinating exhibition with audiences on the West Coast. It reaffirms the revolutionary impact of their work as each grappled with the representation of form, space, and time in art—and in doing so, redefined the conception of art itself.”

Calder-Picasso invites visitors to explore a visual dialogue of works from the mid-1920s to the early 1970s. In this time, Calder sought to capture the unseen and unknown forces that lie beyond traditional physical dimensions in order to express what he called grandeur immense, or “immense grandeur.” In the same period, Picasso, who described his works as pages from his diary, was engaged in fusing the personal with the universal and was determined to achieve “a deeper likeness, more real than real, thus becoming sur-real.”

“Through his mobiles, Calder animated sculpture, embraced chance as a crucial artistic element and engaged the viewer in a dynamic dialogue with the ever-evolving artwork. Exploring the concept of metamorphosis while alternating between representation and abstraction, Picasso revealed the infinite potential inherent in both styles—often in the same work of art,” states Timothy Anglin Burgard, Distinguished Senior Curator and Ednah Root Curator in Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Portraits of the artists’ studios reveal deeply personal environments that offer windows into each artist’s creative process, as well as their respective psychological outlooks. The exhibition also explores one of the artists’ four in-person meetings. While their first encounter was in 1931 at Calder’s premiere Paris exhibition of his abstract sculptures, the exhibition explores his second, at the Paris World’s Fair (1937), where Picasso exhibited his painting Guernica (1937) and Calder exhibited his sculpture Mercury Fountain (1937) in the Spanish Pavilion. Two further documented meetings took place in Antibes in 1952 and Vallauris in 1953.

Calder-Picasso showcases a wealth of pioneering mobiles, stabiles, standing mobiles, paintings, prints, and drawings by Calder, juxtaposed with major paintings, sculptures, and drawings by Picasso, drawn largely from the extensive holdings of the Calder Foundation, Musée national Picasso-Paris, and the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte. Additional loans come from the Centre Pompidou; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Tate Britain; Whitney Museum of American Art; and private collections.

In detail
Thematically arranged, Calder-Picasso takes visitors on a journey through the Herbst Exhibition Galleries that reveals compelling resonances and parallels between these great artists, as well as the unique visions that make each distinctive.

Calder and Picasso were both engaged by the relationship of volume to space. In the exhibition’s opening gallery, Calder’s Ball Player (ca. 1927) captures the silhouette of the figure as he reaches out into space in a moment of focused action, radiating kinetic energy through the slight trembling of the wire lines. Picasso’s Figure (Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire) of 1928 embodies the artist’s attempt to make “a statue out of nothing, out of emptiness.”

The next gallery, “Drawing in Space”—a phrase coined by critics for Calder’s wire sculpture in 1929—explores the two artists’ use of line to separate volume from void. Calder’s wire proto-mobile, Aztec Josephine Baker (1930), which sways with air currents, captures the dazzling energy and dynamism of the legendary African American dancer and cabaret performer who took Jazz Age Paris by storm in the late 1920s. Picasso also experimented with wire and his Figure (1931), seems to conflate a human figure with a geometric object that recalls an artist’s easel.

In “Capturing the Void,” Calder’s and Picasso’s works explore the idea of activating negative space as an essential component of their compositions. With Croisière (1931), Calder depicts unifying yet disparate forces in his non-objective work: solidity and transparency, stasis and activity, volume and void. The upraised left arm of Picasso’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude) of 1932, which frames a half-moon profile against a black void, finds a resonant echo in the wire lines encircling the voids in Calder’s sculptures.

Works in “The Void and the Volume / In Suspense” reveal that both Calder and Picasso were deeply engaged with ideas concerning the articulation of volume within the space of the canvas, and in Calder’s case, expanding works beyond their two-dimensional confines. Calder’s Little Yellow Panel (1936) explores the idea of animating two-dimensional painting with a projecting three-dimensional element in motion. Picasso’s Femme assise dans un fauteuil rouge (Woman Seated in a Red Armchair) of 1932 transforms the subject into a floating arrangement of bone and stone shapes that would collapse in the real world.

In “Sculpting the Void,” Calder’s and Picasso’s works utilize a sculptural vocabulary to shape voids into sensed and seen elements in their compositions. Calder’s standing mobile Four Leaves and Three Petals (1939) employs gracefully slender wire rods and organic sheet-metal shapes to sculpt the surrounding space. Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil, (Woman in an Armchair), April 2, 1947, depicts the female sitter as partially transparent and suggests that the voids in her body assume equally significant sculptural form.

“Vanitas” represents a post–World War II period of rebirth. Calder’s mobile Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong (1948) ingeniously introduces randomly generated sound as an essential element, while Picasso’s Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Pitcher (1945) uses a skull, bone-like leeks, and a pitcher painted with the French flag colors to suggest the dawn of a new era.

In “Making and Deconstructing,” Calder and Picasso construct and deconstruct their subjects and forms to visualize invisible worlds. Key works include Calder’s mobile Scarlet Digitals (1945), a sculpture that projects into places that it doesn’t occupy; its three disparate movements present a shifting presence of absence that is alive with gestures. Picasso’s iconic Bull’s Head (1942), a bronze sculpture made from a discarded bicycle seat and handlebars, reveals the artist’s fascination with the process of distillation to access the truth of the subject.

Works in “Gravity and Grace” have substantial mass yet seem to defy the rules of gravity. Calder’s perfectly balanced Tightrope Worker (1944) is an unusual excursion into solid and fully three-dimensional sculpture that still retains the artist’s preoccupation with movement, while Picasso’s Vase with Flower (1951) challenges conceptions of mass and weight by depicting a soft and fragile flower in hard and durable cast bronze.

The exhibition’s final section, “Folding and Piercing,” challenges traditional definitions that equate sculpture with solid three-dimensional mass. The sheet-metal standing mobile Louisa’s Valentine (1955), with a miniature mobile animating the heart-shaped void, was made by Calder as a valentine for his wife. Picasso’s Woman with Outstretched Arms (1961), sculpted out of metal yet retaining the lightness of paper, flattens the female form into silhouettes and plays on the dialogue between substance and void.

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About the Artists

Alexander Calder (American, 1898–1976)
Alexander Calder utilized his innovative genius to profoundly change the course of modern art. Born in a family of celebrated though more classically trained artists, he began by developing a new method of sculpting; bending and twisting wire, he essentially “drew” three-dimensional figures in space. He is renowned for the invention of the mobile, whose suspended, abstract elements move and balance in changing harmony. Coined by the artist Marcel Duchamp in 1931, the word “mobile” refers to both “motion” and “motive” in French. Many of the earliest mobiles moved by motors, although these mechanics were virtually abandoned as Calder developed mobiles that responded to air currents, light, humidity, and human interaction. He also created stationary abstract works that the artist Jean Arp dubbed stabiles. From the 1950s onward, Calder turned his attention to international commissions and increasingly devoted himself to making outdoor sculpture on a grand scale from bolted steel plates.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
The Spanish-born and France-based painter, sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, ceramist, and theater designer Pablo Ruiz Picasso was one of the most prolific and influential artists of the 20th century. Picasso experimented with an astonishing array of styles and materials during his lifetime—continually oscillating between the twin poles of abstraction and representation—and pioneered new visual languages such as Cubism, collage, and assemblage sculpture. Picasso’s art, while deeply personal, speaks to universal aspects of the human condition—including life, love, sex, war, suffering, mortality, and death—while radically engaging with questions of representation and perception. Among Picasso’s most iconic works is the anti-war mural Guernica (1937), which he created in response to the brutal bombing of the northern Spanish town of Guernica by Nazi German and Fascist Italian air forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

Visiting the de Young museum
The de Young museum is open to the public Tuesday - Sunday 9.30 am - 5.15 pm. More information regarding tickets can be found at deyoungmuseum.org.

Exhibition Organization
Calder-Picasso is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, in partnership with the Calder Foundation, New York; Musée national Picasso-Paris; and the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte.

The exhibition is curated by Ann Dumas, Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Timothy Burgard, Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, based on original curatorial work by Claire Garnier, Emilia Philippot, Alexander S. C. Rower and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, who jointly curated the exhibition as presented at the Musée national Picasso-Paris and the Museo Picasso Málaga.

After being shown at the de Young museum, Calder-Picasso will travel to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and thereafter to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Presenting Sponsors: John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, and Diane B. Wilsey. Lead Sponsors: Bank of America, Michael Taylor Trust, and the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums, and Barbara A. Wolfe. Major Support: Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund, and John Pritzker Family Fund. Significant Support: The Harris Family. Generous Support: Almine Rech Gallery, Lucy Young Hamilton, Pace Gallery, Vance Wall Foundation, Paul A. Violich, and David A. Wollenberg. Additional support provided by Sandra and Paul Bessières, and Seth. L. Matarasso, MD.

Calder-Picasso is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor museum, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States. The de Young was established in 1895 and later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005 with an observation level offering breathtaking 360-degree views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Reflecting a conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections at the de Young include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and modern and contemporary art.