Visual artists of the modern era radically changed how artists interpret the world, and Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso were two of modernism’s most inventive creative forces. “Calder/Picasso,” a new large-scale exhibition at the de Young Museum, presents works by the two masters side-by-side, examining their stylistic and thematic commonalities and giving museumgoers an opportunity to see some extraordinary art.
The exhibition contains more than 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints created by Calder (1898-1976) and Picasso (1881-1973) from the 1920s into the 1970s. Primary themes include how the two artists explored the void, or empty space, in their work and operated in both representational and abstract modes.
Additional subjects include their artistic interest in metamorphosis, their different methods of depicting small- and big-picture realities, and their meeting at the World’s Fair, in Paris, in 1937.
“Calder/Picasso” was conceived by Alexander S. C. Rower and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso (grandsons of the artists) and curated by Timothy Burgard, of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Ann Dumas, of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The curators drew on curatorial work performed for the Musee National Picasso-Paris and the Museo Picasso Malaga.
Pennsylvania-born Calder took sculpture to new places with his wire sculptures — essentially, three-dimensional drawings — and his graceful, viewer-engaging, kinetic mobiles. (Expect to be looking upward, frequently.) The exhibition features both of these forms of sculpture, along with paintings and solid sculptures by Calder.
Spain-born, France-based Picasso, associated with cubism, assemblage art, neoclassicism and surrealism, is known for his immense range and his artistic interest in transformation, construction and deconstruction, and the human figure. While his brilliance has been more widely recognized than Calder’s, Picasso’s works in the show, from his famed “Bull’s Head” to portraits of women in armchairs, still excite.
Organized thematically — section titles include “Drawing in Space,” “Sculpting the Void” and “Making and Deconstructing” — the exhibit begins with early sculptures by both artists, focusing on how they presented matter in relation to the surrounding space.
With its expressive use of line, Calder’s “Ball Player” (1927), a stationary wire sculpture, appears ready to come alive with the physical action it depicts.
Nearby, Picasso’s abstract “Figure (Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire)” (1928) also can be described as “drawing in space.” The work derives tension from the interconnecting of lines and the meeting of material mass and immaterial space.
Calder’s fabulous “Aztec Josephine Baker” (1930) is a wire sculpture described as a proto-mobile. It sways in the style of the popular 1920s jazz performer, capturing her physical essence.
In another gallery, Calder’s abstract wire sculpture “Croisiere” (1931) (a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio prompted Calder to realize the possibilities of abstraction) illustrates the dynamics of converse elements such as stillness and movement, and volume and void.
The exhibit parallels this work with Picasso’s “Reclining Nude” (1932), a colorful painting in which a black void draws your eye to the half-moon-shaped profile of the reclining woman.
Calder’s mobiles — usually made from wire and tiny metal pieces, and set into motion by air currents — could themselves make up an exhibition.
“Triple Gong” (1948) contains brass spheres and metal leaf-like pieces that suggest a pairing of celestial bodies from the cosmos (itself a dynamic combination of form and void) and earthly botanical elements. This horizontal hanging sculpture is a highlight.
Similarly impressive is Calder’s “Scarlet Digitals” (1945), a breezy-looking vertical mobile with branches suggesting the natural world. Displayed in the “Making and Deconstructing” gallery, this work demonstrates how Calder’s exquisite sense of artistic balance and composition gives rise to distinct forms of movement.
In the same gallery, “Bull’s Head” (1942), one of Picasso’s best-known works, is hard to miss. The small but iconic sculpture— a bovine head fashioned from a bicycle seat and handlebars — exemplifies Picasso’s ability to strip found objects of their original function and repurpose them.
Also on view are Picasso’s “Woman in an Armchair” (1947) — a painting whose subject appears usurped by blank space — and “Acrobat,” (1930), a Picasso painting whose contortedly posed subject is having his own date with the void.
Circus subjects, which interested both artists, are a recurring, and particularly enjoyable, theme in the exhibition. A Calder installation featuring several standing sculptures of circus folk is especially stellar.
Additional highlights include Calder’s “Seven Black, Red, and Blue” (1947), an abstract painting with an energy-charged composition consisting of circles, spirals and other shapes occupying an orange void; Calder’s “La Grande Vitesse” (1969), a large, vermilion late-career standing sculpture; and in the “Gravity and Grace” gallery, Picasso’s “Vase With Flower” (1951), a work bucking the sculptural norm by presenting a fragile flower in hard, solid bronze.
IF YOU GO
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays- Sundays; closes May 23
Price: $20 to $35; advance purchase required
Contact: (888) 901-6645, tickets.famsf.org
Note: COVID-19 safety guidelines are in effect. Visit famsf.org for ticket and entrance policies.