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William Eggleston and Alexander Calder at the Whitney

A body of sustained and consistent work over a lifetime separates real artists from poseurs. Real artists make art because they can't help it. It's a fever, an obsession, often the only way they know to express themselves. Sometimes, artists make work that is less thrilling and successful than their other work, but usually it's because they're trying to get through a phase, often with sloppy results. Real artists move on, even when they know that their fans and critics want them to cling to their successes. This is all in contrast to me, because I have a ton of art supplies piled up on a shelf in a corner, and they sit there until I am sometimes moved to make a couple of sketches every other month.

William Eggleston, pointing a camera on colorful subjects in the South, and Alexander Calder, who bent metal into fanciful kinetic sculptures in Paris and elsewhere, are both real artists that meet the criteria listed above. As such, anyone pretending to be a photographer or a sculptor or any kind of artist in general, should make a point of visiting the Whitney and seeing what these two are all about.

William Eggleston

I visited the Whitney during the Christmas holiday just to see the Eggleston photos, as I'm a big fan. I was familiar with many of the images already - the old guy sitting on the side of the bed holding a gun pointed down to the mattress, the big tricycle shot from a low angle in front of the suburban tract houses, that smoking older woman in the jazzy dress sitting on the floral printed swinging sofa in her garden in Jackson, and others, but it turned out I didn't know the half of it. In the Whitney retrospective, I got a clearer sense of Eggleston's experiments with the dye-transfer process, his developing relationships with fringe art players (he dated Viva, one of Andy's superstars), and of his flirtation with video. One of the highlights of the exhibit is the screening of "Stranded in Canton," a type of home movie that brings home the artist as a cool dude, one who's comfortable with boozing eccentrics in dive bars. So, he's not just your regular southern guy with color film stock. And a big "Hallelujah" for this. It's about time to recognize that the phrase "avant-garde South" doesn't have to be an oxymoron.

Alexander Calder

But wait! I liked the Calder exhibit even more than Eggleston's. Why? First is that "aura" thing - the oft-cited distinction, most famously made by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," between an original, material, and singular object versus a work that is reproduced. While these Eggleston prints are beautiful and made as an end of themselves, the textures and dimensionality of the objects in the Calder exhibit exuded the aura of Paris in the twenties. What delightful work, these wire portraits of many notable Parisians, the miniature Circus, the early mobiles. There's so much of it, as if Calder himself was the busiest kinetic sculpture of them all.

Before leaving New York, where he studied with John Sloan and George Luks, Calder showed his talent in line drawing, especially sketches of animals based on his visits to the Central Park and Bronx Zoos (originally as newspaper illustrations and published as Animal Sketches in 1926). Moving to Paris, he lived cheaply and well, befriended Miro, Leger, and Duchamp, became a huge Josephine Baker fan, got a gig making wooden toys for a company back in Oshkosh, and became the impresario of his own miniature circus, among many other things. By exploring a portrait of the artist as a young man, this rich exhibit (the Whitney has more Calder than any other museum) serves to enhance the charms of Paris in the twenties as well as to heighten the appreciation for one of the most well-known and loved sculptors of the twentieth century.

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video 1961-2008, through January 25, 2009; and Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933, through February 15, 2009. Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue. See museum website. Photo by WOTBA.

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  1. A wonderful post! For me, art is the biggest single reason I wish I lived in New York. And the Eggleston exhibit is probably the biggest show that has me jonesing for New York at the moment. I too am a longtime fan of his work. He pretty much single-handedly made the art world take color photography seriously. Happily, though, my favorite Calder is right here in downtown Chicago: Flamingo.

  2. Thanks. That's a nice Calder you have there in Chicago. I like how you wrote about it, including the story of why Calder decided to call it Flamingo.

  3. You touch on a significant point and one which comes back to me again and again in galleries and showrooms, both celebrated and modestly obscure. The difference between work which is felt and that which is simply – one might write 'merely' – produced. It is intensely difficult to define but the effort is important and here you are attempting it.

    Today, the issue grows and grows in the visual arts. In music and dance, even drama, there is just so much technique to be learned and incorporated into performance. In the visual arts the processes today are somehow assurance of merit in themselves.

    There is no reason why young visual artist's are not also good or even memorable ones early in their careers; but it is rarer than we are led to believe by today's frenzied art world. Just look for example at the young Cezanne or Pollock's early work. What came after threw a light backward.

    Calder's work is the apparently effortless outcome of dedication to his art; but also, in ways you have correctly made plain, his life also. Live a little first. As one distinguished American who settled on my side of the Atlantic once observed – "Self expression is a good thing so long as one has a self to express."

  4. Anton, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I like your distinction between art that is felt and that which may be competently produced. Living a life, as you state, may of course lead to these artistic instincts, the kind that presume an accumulation of emotional connections, experiences, and personal inspirations.

    I made several broad generalizations in my post, the most important of them, at least in my mind, is offered in the opening sentence. After seeing several mid-career and full retrospectives over the past couple of years, I have been struck by the distinction between those who practice art as something central to their lives versus those who pick up a brush or a pencil on the occasional weekend.


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