This month, Cora and I headed to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to see Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection. The massive exhibition of American artist Alexander Calder is on view through August 4, 2024 and is one that will spark the imaginations of even young children with some preparation.
Children use imagination to understand the world and nurturing it helps develop critical thinking. Exposing children to great art helps them see that imagination need never be sidelined in the pursuit of “growing up.” In fact, unrestrained imagination is essential for creating great art. Alexander Calder is a case in point.
“There is a richness in Calder, an almost profligate imagination,” says Calder biographer Jed Perl.
A SAM marquee exhibition for 2024, the Calder exhibit consists of 45 works, prints, and related ephemera that covers 50 years of artist’s oeuvre, including seminal works from his most important styles. Lovingly collected and gifted to the museum by former Microsoft CEO and philanthropist Jon Shirley, the exhibit makes Seattle a global destination for those who love Calder, whose massive Eagle (1971) landed at SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007. That too was a gift of the Shirley family.
José Carlos Diaz, SAM Deputy Director for Art, explains the groundbreaking nature of Calder’s work this way:
“Calder had major international reach during his lifetime that only a select handful of American artists had. Sculpture before this was static in nature and traditional in materiality, such as marble and bronze. Calder’s work engages with time and space, or what some would call the 4th dimension.”
Mobiles and Stabiles
Calder’s most famous works fall into two categories: kinetic sculptures (mobiles) often suspended from the ceiling, and static abstract sculptures (stabiles) that give the illusion of motion.
An untitled work from 1948 dances slowly to your left as you enter the gallery. Cora walked around it, flicking her hand back and forth as she circled the sculpture. I understood the instinct. It feels almost impossible to stand stationary in front of his work; the viewer must move to appreciate it.
SAM transformed its double-height gallery to exhibit Calder’s works, with sculptures that range in size from 22 feet to just three inches tall. Whether suspended from the ceiling or lined up behind glass like precious biological specimens, Calder’s sculptures consist of negative space and reflection as much as the painted steel for which he is so famous.
Peering around Gamma (1947), pointing to the dancing reflections, Cora said, “They are like dust on my glasses.” When she sketched the artwork in her notepad, she sketched the shadows, not the sculpture.
On our way home, I asked Cora about her favorite piece.
“The one I am thinking about right now was like rain,” she answered. “The shadows moving.”
You may hear her little voice in your head when you visit In Motion. Watch your child’s body—will they trace their hand in the air, walk around each piece, follow the mobile with their eyes?
On our second visit, Cora pointed up to the balcony and said we should see the show from above. She was right. From the fourth-floor balcony, you can see not only a different view of the works, but the way SAM emulated Calder’s work in their curation. The walls curve and slope and mobiles hang above perfect circular plinths, beckoning you around and around like one of Calder’s steel petals. As you admire the mobile, you become part of it. In this elegant twist, SAM shows off Calder’s genius by incorporating the viewers into the dance.
Abstract and Figural
What’s exciting about this exhibition isn’t just the scope, but the variety of Calder’s work. His most familiar pieces are abstract, but his figural sculptures are a delight. In many pieces, the abstract and figural exist side by side.
A perfect example, Jonah and the Whale (1940), captured Cora’s attention and allowed us to talk about figural versus abstraction in art. The figural elements—a tiny, dangling man and whale—gave us the context to understand the larger abstraction. “You can tell it is a whale on the outside because both have a pointy tale and flat chin,” explained Cora.
Nature offers endless possibilities for the concurrence of abstraction and figural, and Calder invokes nature everywhere: insects and birds and animals, rocks, seeds, trees, and roots.
“This one looks like petals,” said Cora of Untitled (1948), “but it also looks like teeth—and the holes are cavities.”
Calder was a master of using cold materials like steel and wire to evoke life. Cora and I particularly enjoyed identifying all the tiny pieces in Fish, 1942. “They are like gemstones, but when you get close you see it’s a lot of different things,” she told me.
Discuss the Show
We asked Anna Allegro, SAM Associate Director of Education, for some ways a parent can enhance their child’s visit. Here are a few ideas:
- Visit with family, friends, or even classmates. “When you look at art with other people, you can share your point of view and also learn from their perspective.”
- Ask your child if the artwork reminds them of anything from their own life.
- Ask your child to imagine what the artwork would sound like. Would it whoosh or rumble?
- Bring sketching materials: “If your kiddo would rather be more active, bring along a notepad and pencil and try sketching one of Calder’s two-dimensional works, starting with an interesting shape or line that they notice,” Allegro advises.
- Circle around the artwork for different angles and visit the fourth floor for the birds-eye view.
- Invite your child into a discussion about Calder’s materials. What materials can your child recognize? Some will be familiar, others more unusual. See how many they can find! Says Allegro: “For a challenge,” said Allegro, “Can they find an artwork made out of tin cans?”
- Remind your child to refrain from touching the sculptures. It can be hard not to want to touch Calder’s art. Remind them that despite their materials, they are fragile and irreplaceable. Bring a fidget toy along for kids who would get antsy.
Plan Your Visit to Calder: In Motion
“Calder: In Motion” is on view through August 2024, Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $29.99 for adults, $19.99 for students over age 14 with ID; children 14 and under are free. The museum and it’s exhibits are free on the first Thursday of every month.
Since the SAM is squarely in the middle of the city, expect to pay quite a bit if you decide to drive and park. Parking can run upwards of $35 for a few hours in certain lots. The good news is you can take your pick of bus routes and the light rail, which will drop you off at University Street Station on 2nd Ave, one block east of SAM’s entrances.