Mr. President, I just spent a couple of hours in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, one of the magnificent Smithsonian Museums which are, thankfully, publicly funded, in the capitol city of your new employer, the United States of America.
Perhaps you can walk over there someday soon. It’s not too far from where you will sometimes live.
These museums, and the art and history they contain, are concrete signifiers of a great and healthy civilization. When the people and the government together support the arts, they are enjoined in a collective effort to acknowledge and celebrate the nation’s identity. There we see our collective soul realized and reflected. New paths of discourse are opened to show us what we may not have recognized about ourselves. Our national museums of are free and open to everyone; that in itself is symbolic of a democratic impulse towards inclusion, free expression, and open access to and participation in our nation’s ongoing story.
The atrium of the East Wing is dominated by Alexander Calder’s great, final work (Untitled, 1976). It was commissioned specifically for that space and is the visual anchor at the heart of the building. It is massive, and at 76 feet, his largest mobile. It is motor-less and moves only by means of air currents and its is own delicate equilibrium. It is a stunning and magical work which defies expectations and gravity, a celestial motion guided by unseen hands. It appears at once heavy and and weightless, floating as softly as a dust mote, moving imperceptibly under the light pouring in from the glass ceiling. If you ever go there, it will draw your eyes upward, and open you to the possibility of art as a transcendent power.
The shapes and motions of the great work in the atrium set off a range of associations: flocks of birds, moving clouds, sunspots in a bright sky or streaks of light at night, planetary motions, vertebrae, the spinal plates of a Stegosaurus, the massiveness of great and ancient beasts. We marvel at the exquisite ingenuity and imaginative whimsy of this man who began his career simply bending wire to make jewelry.
Along with jewelry, early in his career in Paris Calder became famous for the miniature kinetic circus he fashioned and conducted. Some of his greatest admirers were children. Once, when asked about his popularity, he wrote, “My fan mail is tremendous. Everyone is under six.” And why not? Children love dinosaurs, planets, animals, the shapes of clouds, and birds, all of which suggest possibility, magic, surprise, and infinitude. Calder’s work somehow embodies all of that.
We entered into an upstairs gallery which was devoted to a variety of nearly 50 works by Calder, spanning his career from the 1930’s to his death. Abstract and figurative, circus figures, wire sculptures, stabiles, smaller mobiles. Moving shadows were cast on the wall as the plates and wire arms made their slow revolutions. It was, to paraphrase Calder, painting with shapes.
In the gallery was a smaller display case holding a variety of miniature works. Whereas the untitled work in the East Wing atrium soars and stuns through sheer magnitude, the smaller works were tender, intimate, potent jewels: smaller maquettes of larger, more famous works, a small cow turned from wire, a doll-sized mobile hanging from the top of the glass case like a weightless bunch of grapes
In these smaller works the great size and power of the universe was reduced, even if for a moment. Like e.e. cummings’ imagined poet, we could believe we might “hold a mountain’s heartbeat” in our hands. Such sorcery is an antidote to super-sized grandeur or boorish monstrosities; to our obsession with glittering towers or the bejeweled crowns of emperors; with celebrity and glamour and power. Simple works of individual creativity stand in opposition to the the world as a faceless machine functioning blindly and without forgiveness or compassion. Small, beautiful things bring the world back to us.
As the As museum goers, all of them adults, walked past the display, they looked upon these works with delighted smiles and curious glinting eyes—with the eyes of children.
The central object in the case was a felt-lined cigar box, propped open and divided into five compartments. Next to the box were the contents—five tiny wire sculptures, stabiles and mobiles each no larger than a ping-pong ball, each made of a painted steel and brass. The work was titled, “Louisa’s 5oth Birthday Present.” Made in 1955, it was Calder’s gift to his wife.
I imagined him giving her such a gift. He hands her the small box, still redolent of cigar tobacco and cedar. He wants to see her face when she opens it. She lifts the lid and inside is a tiny universe, visions never known before, a gift from his heart to hers. Each of the five chambers contain a humble drama. She places each one carefully on the table, and with a gentle tap sets them in motion, and they begin turning and turning. She looks to him and then back down, watching each one spin, slowly and silently there between them, something of time and existence and the miracle of the two of them swept up in it.
This, she knows, we know, is a symbol of a life shared and made.
A lady standing next to me and looked at it for a moment, then looked up at me. “How’d you like to get that for a birthday present?” she asked.
I nodded and smiled. Perhaps she meant that his sculpture would have been worth a ton, but I like to think she meant something else—that the gift for Louisa was and is valuable and beautiful precisely because it was not gold or diamonds. It stood for that thing we most crave—something from the heart made for us, made by someone thinking of us, a gift of life and love.