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The Many Masks of Modern Art; Translating the principles of nature

I've been convinced for some time now that alexander Calder never made of his mobiles or stabiles, that he went for a walk one day years ago in one of our wilder forests and stumbled upon a clearing in which mobiles and stabiles were growing in rich profusion. And that he quietly brought some out -- and then went back for more every time his supply ran low.

How else can one explain the uniqueness, the logic, the working perfection of these fabulous objects? No, they're not the creations as an artist's mind and sensibilities, but a separate and special species of nature discovered by Calder while out on a walk.

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Imagination and fantasy aside, that is pretty much what these constructions of steel, aluminum, wire, and wood actually are. They have an identity that is complete and final, and yet they resemble absolutely nothing else in life. They move, they enchant, and they delight -- and are as real and as intact as anything else in the world around us.

What better proof do we need to accept the fact that Calder, probably more than any other artist of this century, was totally and intimately in dialogue with nature? That nature told him what to do, and that he did it? And that, by taking the impulses and insights sent his way and translating them into art, he produced works which not only celebrate life but clue us in to some of life's universal principles as well?

Modernism takes great pride in its independence, but often has the most difficult time choosing between an arbitrary independence and one predicated upon full compliance with the principles of life. Without the need to validate its identity by conforming to the outward appearances of nature, art today is free either to will its identity into formal existence, or to discover its identity by responding to and translating comples sets of impulses and intuitions into shapes, colors, and materials.

Both methods can produce art and both can produce attractive but empty decoration. Nothing is more crucial to modernism -- and to art in general -- than understanding which creative factors lead to art and which others lead to pointless doodlings and impressive but empty facades.

It is one of the seeming paradoxes of life that a four- year-old child can create a primitive form of art by scribbling for a few minutes with crayons, and that an intelligent and highly skilled adult will often produce an empty and lifeless painting or sculpture after days and weeks of intense and serious effort.

But if one thinks about it for a moment, there is nothing paradoxical about it.

A four-year-old child can turn on an electric switch and flood a room with light -- while an adult, even one with an advanced academic degree -- can sit in darkness in a corner of that room for the rest of his life trying to invent light out of thin air.

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IT doesn't matter if we turn on a switch, strike a match, wait for the dawn, or rub two sticks together; in order to have light we must adapt ourselves to its principles or be content to remain in the dark.

Art is like that too. We can tap it, but we can't force it,

That is a simple rule, and yet is seldom understood or accepted

Art is, above all, packaged life, energy, and vitality. The artist is the packager, the transmitter of that life -- never the originator. It is he who senses how and where the life he carries will take form. It is he who senses where the obstacles are least fierce -- and where life as art can crash through and find expression and form.

The object of art is to carry life forward, and it will do so regardless of how odd or trivial the form it takes might seem. If the times aren't right for a Michelangelo or a Cezanne, art will find its voice in the dribblings of a Jackson Pollock or the dipping and moving wires and pieces of tin of a Calder.

And, if the times aren't right for a Michelangelo or a Cezanne, no amount of energy expended sculpting or painting like them will be of any avail.

The great lesson of Calder is that he found himself as an artist by following and respecting his intuitions. He is like the man in his garden at night who senses precisely where a firefly will flash even though it is pitch black -- and who moves to that exact spot with an open glass jar.

An exhibition of Calder's art is as lively as a roomful of happy children. And yet this can be deceptive. Although these mobiles and stabiles may have a childlike quality, they are the product of a man who also had the shrewd and magical talents of a Merlin.

Each piece is a miracle of exquisite adjustments and precise placements, of the perfect combination of detail and broad, sweeping line, of delicious wit and elegant curves. It is crucial that a particular work have six disks rather than five or seven, and that a thin chain supporting a floating red shape consist of nine links rather than eight.

Everthing counts in a Cader, and is there for a particular reason -- although that reason may be difficult to put into words. He didn't copy nature or transcribe it literally, but caught the patterns, rhythms, balances, and movements made by the elements of nature. We may not find trees in his art, but we find the movements made by trees and tall grasses in the wind. We may not find people, animals, birds, or fish, but we will find shapes and forms swaying, dipping, and moving about that are like personages in their own special way. and we will find such things as moving curves and colorful objects in such perfect balance with one another that they activate and stir vague and fugitive memories of infinite beauty within us.

Even if Calder didn't find his mobiles and stabiles in a wild forest, he also certainly didn't makem them. At the most he helped them find their own identities, and he did that by refusing to force either his materials or his sensibilities into other-than-natural directions, and by listening very closely to what nature had to say.

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