MFAH’s ‘Calder-Picasso’ pairs giants of modernity

Alexander Calder’s “Red Lily Pads” and Pablo Picasso’s trio of bathers. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Pablo Picasso is the most famous artist of the 20th century. Let’s get that unarguable fact out of the way. His prodigious output means that a new Picasso show pops up somewhere every few years. The best focus on specific parts of his oeuvre rather than try to be all encompassing, such as the fabulous “Picasso: Black and White” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2013. Picasso casts such a broad shadow over modern art it can be suffocating.

How refreshing then to see an exhibition that uses the great Spaniard to actually illuminate another artist. “Calder-Picasso” at MFAH through, is a wonderful chance to see more Picassos, but it is equally exciting to find the American Alexander Calder taking a large share of the focus.

Most exhibitions featuring two artists seek to connect them personally or professionally. “Calder-Picasso” is a conversation between two giants of 20th-century art through a shared poetic philosophy. Both, the exhibition posits, sought to explore the void, the absence of space that defines form and reality.

Alexander S.C. Rower and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso at a preview for “Calder-Picasso” at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston

Calder was 17 years younger than Picasso, but both were in Paris in the 1920s. They were passing acquaintances and there is no crossover of styles. In fact, Calder seems more stylistically connected to the works of their mutual friend Joan Miro than Picasso.

Interestingly, the pair’s works, side by side, actually strengthen their individual visions. The exhibition is a posthumous dialogue between them. The exhibition was organized by Alexander S.C. Rower and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, the respective artists’ grandsons, and one gets the impression the younger men are playing out the conversation their grandfather’s might have had. It is a conversation that in many ways defines modern art.

Some of Alexander Calder’s wire “drawings,” including Josephine Baker, second from right. Photo by Andy Coughlan

“Calder-Picasso” is broadly chronological with the first gallery titled “Drawing in Space.” Calder made his name initially with his wire drawings, especially of circus performers, and he was dubbed the “The King of Wire.” Calder’s 3-dimensional “drawings” feel as free and spontaneous as Picasso’s drawings (the Spaniard may be the best exponent of line drawing in history). While most of the 3D works are Calder’s, a wire sculpture Picasso designed for a monument to the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire shows off what Picasso called his “doodling in space.” Picasso was also inspired by circus performers (especially in his early Blue Period).

One of Calder’s wire “drawings” is of Josephine Baker. The way her legs are crossed indicate she is doing the Charleston, the most popular dance of the time. Baker is among a series of large wire drawings that hang above the ground, allowing the viewer to see an important aspect of Calder’s work — the shadows they cast.

An installation view of “Calder-Picasso” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Marie-Terese Walter became Picasso’s main muse in 1927 and his portraits of her are composed of sensuous swirling lines and circles. In 1932’s “Reclining Nude” her face is surrounded by a circle and defined by a dark void. Outside of the void, there is a series of wavy lines that suggest a vibrant energy flowing from her. Around the same time, Calder visited Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and was inspired by his studio. He began to explore “unseen forces,” a radiating energy that connects us all, a universality. Other than that, Calder said, “My work has no meaning.”

The concept of the void is important. Calder is playing with circular shapes. In Calder’s drawings of the time, he is trying to capture three dimensions in two dimensions. Once again, we find Picasso exploring similar themes.

Calder trained as an engineer and he initially considered having small motors that would turn the mobiles but eventually decided to let them “drift in the air,” pushed by whatever movement is in the room. Calder allowed for chance creations and would cut out the shapes and play around until he found what worked best.

Calder’s “Four Leaves and Three Petals,” left, and Picasso’s “Woman in an Armchair.” Photo by Andy Coughlan

In “Sculpting the Void” we see Calder creating “stabiles,” like mobiles but designed not to move. These are more objective. “Four Leaves and Three Petals,” designed for the Bronx Zoo, looks like a tree, but elephants can’t eat metal leaves, Calder quipped. Picasso’s “Woman in an Armchair,” which hangs next to the stabile is very linear and echoes the shapes Calder is playing with.

Alexander Calder’s “La Grande Vitesse,” on the floor, and one of his mobiles at MFAH. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The highlight of the exhibition is the combination of large red Calder mobile which hangs above three larger-than-life Picasso metal figures. The juxtaposition of the pieces — Calder floating in air, Picasso heavy and grounded — creates a fascinating experience. Calder’s “Red Lily Pads,” despite its size, has an ethereal quality as it floats effortlessly above Picasso’s trilogy of “Bathers” — (“Child,” “Woman Diver” and “The Woman With Outstretched Arms”) — who are seemingly frozen in time. The fact that one can walk around them and soak in the universal energy that emanates from them is one of the greatest things about art. Here are two creative geniuses working separately but somehow tied to a universal truth. And we get to connect with that truth.

It goes without saying, of course, that any Picasso exhibition is a must visit. One can always discover something new (and this is probably my 20th major Picasso show in the past 50 years). But the delight of “Calder-Picasso” is a chance to see another collection of the American’s work. And in the dialogue between the pair, both are elevated.

“Calder-Picasso” is on display in the Beck Building, Brown Foundation Gallery through Jan. 30, 2022.

For more information, visit

This article first ran in the Nov. 13 Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise. All photos by Andy Coughlan

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