Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Philadelphia loses its Calders.

Calder 'Jerusalem Stabile' formerly at the "Calder Garden"
- courtesy hanneorla's flickrstream

Sure…his home and studio were in Roxbury Connecticut, Chicago has “The Flamingo” and the mechanical contraption in the Sears Tower (or whatever it is called now), Grand Rapids loves its “La Grande Vitesse” so much that they’ve adopted it as the official icon of the city, Washington D.C. has the beautiful and remarkable mobile in the National Gallery, New York has a fabulous collection of who knows how many mobiles and stabiles at the Whitney, but Philadelphia, perhaps more than any other city, has been most often associated with Alexander Calder and one of the best places to view his art.

“I was born in Lawnton” Calder said in his autobiography, “but it has been swallowed up by Philadelphia”. One of his first memories was living in a small Philadelphia apartment next to a railroad yard and being fascinated by the field of tracks, passenger trains, and freight cars. Born into a family of working artists, Calder also recalled posing in his father’s Philadelphia studio located on the second floor of an old livery stable for a statue that was to become known as “The Man Cub”.

Calder had no interest in becoming an artist. He was more fascinated by machines and loved tinkering and inventing things in the little workshops that he cobbled up in the corner of his father’s studio. I think he would have been quite surprised back then if someone were to tell him that one day it would be possible for a visitor to stand in one particular spot on Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway, not too far away from his boyhood home, and observe a time-line of sculptures from three generations of Calder artists; from Calder’s very-own “Ghost” mobile hanging outside the great stair hall at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, to his father Alexander Stirling Calder’s “Swann Memorial Fountain” at Logan Square, to the historical sculptures at City Hall created by his grandfather Alexander Milne Calder.

A few years ago, the Ben Franklin Parkway boasted not one, not two, not three, but ELEVEN Calder sculptures, located in a two-acre plot known as “The Calder Garden”. Opening announcements made in 2001 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art said that there would be a rotating display of 10 to 15 pieces over a 13 year period. Funding for this display was provided by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts and the sculptures were provided on loan by The Calder Foundation.

Philadelphia, obviously proud of it’s Calder legacy, had even bigger plans for the Garden, a huge museum solely devoted to the work of Calder; a collection of mobiles, stabiles, jewelry, paintings, and contraptions unlike anything in the world. Sadly, despite many attempts over many years of failed negotiations to come to terms with requirements from the Calder Foundation (based in New York) and patrons who were asked to donate works on loan to the museum, the plans were scrapped and it is generally agreed that a museum will never be built.

And now, the Calder Garden is gone and it’s too late to do anything about it.

Without any prior announcement or explanation - practically under cover of darkness, sculptures were quickly dismantled, packed up, and hauled away this month. Within a few days the whimsical Calder Garden became nothing more than a grassy plot of land where you could walk your dog or toss an empty water bottle.

One sculpture does remain, relocated to an area nearby. It was the only one owned by the city of Philadelphia and not the Calder Foundation.

Spokespeople for the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Pew Charitable Trust had little to say about the removal, calling the 12 year term a “ballpark figure” and explaining that the funding for the event had simply expired.

I have not seen any comments from the Calder Foundation.

You really have to see a Calder sculpture in person to experience it. Obviously, a static photograph of a mobile can not provide you with the sense of life and playfulness that these sculptures radiate, and a photograph of a monolithic sculpture like the Flamingo in Chicago pales in comparison to the experience you feel when you are able to stand underneath a sculpture this size. I had hoped to visit the Calder Garden some day.

The loss of the museum and now the Calder Garden is not only a loss to the city of Philadelphia, it is also a loss to the legacy of Alexander Calder; a man whom is arguably America’s most prolific, inventive, and greatest sculptor. And it is a huge loss to fans and would-be fans of his work. It is disappointing that the Calder Foundation did not take a proactive role in finding a way to keep the Calder Garden alive and to find a way to bring the Calder Museum to fruition.

1 comment:

  1. That's a real shame. Despite having visited Philadelphia a lot in the past -- my wife's from there and my best friend lived in Center City for years -- I don't think I noticed all the Calders. I'm a big fan of his but his monumental sculptures tend to fade into the background for me. I can't tell you how many times I walked past the one at the World Trade Center in New York. It's too bad I didn't hear about the Calder Garden until it was gone -- I would've looked for it next time I was there.

    Storm King in upstate New York has five Calders. It's a great place and worth the visit.