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Facets of an Artist: Calder Jewelry Shines

September 4, 2008 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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A multimedia flower pin by Alexander Calder
To understand the uniqueness of the jewelry of Alexander Stirling Calder, you have only to look at the boxes he made to hold each necklace or pin.

A Calder box is nothing like a bowed, beautifully elegant, Tiffany gift box. If you had purchased a necklace from Alexander Calder during his heyday as a sculptor, it would have come to you nestled in a repurposed wooden crate that had, most probably, once held the sculptor's hardware.

Gracefully signed by the artist with a calligraphic brush, each box became as much an objet d'arte as the jewel it held.

You can see both the jewelry and the boxes at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Calder jewelry is on display through Nov. 2.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is primarily known as a sculptor, the originator of the mobile and the stabile. Calder, known as "Sandy" among his friends, freed sculpture from earthly moorings as the first artist to direct our attention to the movement of three-dimensional objects in space.

His flamboyant, ground-breaking approach to sculpture not only changed the visual arts -- his oeuvre has entered our everyday lexicon of how we consider the visual world. His approach to the three-dimensional object was so unique that new words had to be invented to describe it.

It was Marcel Duchamp who coined the word "mobile" to describe Calder's hanging, floating sculptures, and it was painter Jean Arp who coined the term "stabile" to describe his moving sculptures that stood on a floor or table.

However, while no new words were needed to describe Calder's jewelry, that, too, lies in a class by itself. His first jewels were made when he was a child, for his sister's dolls. From that time on, he never stopped working with small objects throughout his long career.

Calder hewed to exacting, self-imposed parameters regarding the fabrication of jewelry. He seldom used gold, preferring brass and steel, often repurposed. Each intricate piece was totally handmade; not even the clasps were bought.

All the metals were worked cold. Nothing was ever soldered; heat was never applied. As a result of these rigorous technical limitations, each piece proudly carries the organic evidence of the maker's handiwork. One sees the hammer marks, cut lines, wire twists and stone settings -- all as if the artist had just walked away from his workbench.

As for the subject matter of Calder jewelry, certain themes are apparent. He loved making personally inspired gifts for his wife and for friends. Many are on display at the museum: There is an arresting photograph of artist Georgia O'Keefe wearing a pin Calder had made for her.

He would often return to animal forms as inspiration. No dainty ladybugs, however; big and bold whether a bunny, lizard or turtle.

The most arresting pieces almost can be described as stabiles for moving human forms that engage the wearer in a public performance. They are outrageously large, and not at all in the tradition of jewelry up until his time.

Early on, even the artist's most outrageous jewelry found an eager market among the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and other forward-thinking collectors. They endorsed Calder's view that his small works were as important as his large sculptures.

It is surprising, then, that it has taken so long for the museum world to focus its attention on the jewelry of Alexander Calder. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is is to be congratulated for bringing this important body of work to public consideration.

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Now exhibiting at DGLM Gallery in Northeast Philadelphia, Carla Goodstein is a painter and printmaker who brings her sincere love of Yiddishkeit to her easel.

Her subjects range from yeshiva students to the broad, visual world of traditional Judaism.

In addition to her works now at the Bustleton Avenue gallery, Max & David's restaurant in Elkins Park just purchased a giclee print by the artist, who has taught at Politz Hebrew Academy, also in the Northeast, and now gives private art lessons.


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