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Calder drew in the air

Alexander Calder's reputation - for all his continuing recognition - has possibly suffered in the same way that an actor can sometimes be remembered exclusively for a popular role. His invention and imaginative development of "mobiles" - often entertaining kinetic structures that reflect the motions of the universe - may have encouraged an unspoken suspicion that he is not a heavyweight. Trivial hijacking of his concept hasn't helped either.

Add his unpretentious attitudes to art (hiding an absolute dedication), his humor and wit, and the basic good nature of his work, and the result has sometimes been the kind of faint praise critic Lawrence Alloway voiced, "He is like a traditional comedian on the radio, using a new channel of communication for popular and pleasant purposes."

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Calder's "new channel," as Alloway saw it, was his use of "wire cutters and a welding torch." Calder himself once said he found he could "work more easily shaping wire than drawing with a pencil." With wire, he drew in the air. It was an astonishing fantasy made possible by marvelous facility.

But just how entirely "pleasant" is Calder's art? An exhibition, at the Menil Collection in Houston through Jan. 8, concentrates on his connections with one of the less-pleasant art movements of the 20th century, Surrealism. The show presents Calder from a fresh angle.

"Calder was drawn to the fantastic," observes curator Mark Rosenthal. "His interests converged with Surrealist themes of wit, exotic creatures, and extravagant displays of nature."

The exhibition asks for a more balanced appreciation of Calder's art, showing how the Surrealist fascination for dreams and the subconscious liberated his imagination. Equally, though, he responded to the freedom of abstraction. He was influenced on one hand by Arp and MirĂ³, and on the other by Mondrian. He was never totally committed to either camp.

"Constellation" of 1943 shows how his two sides could combine in his work. During World War II, he took up wood carving because metal was in short supply. The small wooden forms, supported and separated by minimal wires, are biomorphic like many Surrealist forms. Calder said they "came from MirĂ³," a friend since 1929. But he didn't try to explain his "Constellations."

Instead, he obscurely stated that "they had a suggestion of some kind of cosmic nuclear gases."