Calder, Bookstores and the Death of Cool

TODAY I’ve got a few smallish items to catch up on.

First, it’s hardly news that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has been on a roll recently. Over the weekend, I caught the Calder exhibit – “Calder and Abstraction” – and parts of it blew me away. I’ve seen my share of Alexander Calder sculptures over the years – there is a “stabile,” the stationary version of a mobile, outside the train station in Spoleto, Italy, one of my favorite place. His mobiles are, for some, so familiar, that he’s often taken as lightweight: The show’s subtitle, “From Avant-Garde to Iconic,” is a polite way of saying, You probably know this stuff already.Calder

But the show made a quietly persuasive case for Calder who still has new things to tell us. Seeing a few dozens of his sculptures in the same place, with the right lighting (the museum’s skylights were covered up), and with curving gray walls that complemented the graceful arcs of Calder’s pieces, it was hard not to notice his ingenuity and profundity. Often, he’s able to give each sculpture enormous personality with only a few shapes and two or three colors. He’s coming out of Mondrian in some of his work, but it still feels distinctive.

The exhibition design – among the best I’ve ever seen – was by Frank Gehry. In its more modest way, the exhibit made me rethink Calder the same way John Baldessari’s design for Magritte did a few years ago.

Christopher Knight, the LA Times’ art critic, was similarly impressed in his review, comparing the work to Einstein. He’s struck by:

an aspect of Calder’s work that, to me at least, had never been evident before. Motion doesn’t really describe it. Instead, this is sculpture whose enduring fascination rides on the articulation of the curvature of space through time.

It does so with elegance and grace. Or, one might say, with the simplicity and profundity of E=mc².

The LACMA also currently has on exhibit a delightful short film by David Hockney – The Jugglers. I’ve found some of Hockney’s work repetitive – you get to see a lot of it here in LA – but this piece is fresh and surprising, with its overlapping points of view. I’m a sucker for photography shows, and the exhibition (from the museum’s Vernon collection) See the Light, reminded me why. Taking my 7-year-old son through the show and trying to describe how a photographer can make a subjective, personal work while looking outward at nature or society gave the visit extra pleasure.

ALSO: During my two years covering books and authors for the LA Timers, I got all too familiar writing the obituaries of independent bookstores, places that I consider as crucial for culture as museums or concert halls.

Part of what killed the places I wrote about was the domination of superstores. Now the superstores are dying themselves – Borders is history, Barnes & Noble has begun closing stores, including one in Pasadena. The digital Nook was supposed to save them, and now the company’s Nook division has seen almost 100 layoffs. The New York Times has the story.

FINALLY: Since the early ‘90s, when I discovered The Baffler, I’ve been a fan of political writer Thomas Frank, a throwback to old-school social critics like Vance Packard whose thinking has only become sharper and more pertinent since then. His work on inequality and the destruction of the idea of the public may not seem to connect to my blog’s mission to document the changing fortunes of the creative class and the life of culture, but they’re all related. Artists, writers, musicians and others often live in denial, but they are caught in the ugly squeeze as the rest of the middle class.

Starting this weekend, Frank will be writing every Sunday for Salon, with smaller pieces throughout the week. This excites me greatly, and not just because I contribute to the site. Here’s their announcement.

I interviewed Frank in 2000 when his prescient book One Market Under God, on market populism, came out. We got into a bunch of topics, including the subject of his radically insightful first book, The Conquest of Cool, which looks at how Madison Avenue co-opted the ‘60s counter-culture. My favorite quote from our conversation: “The bottom line is that I’m just not very cool. In any of the ways that cool is signified – by the hair, the clothes, the slang – I’m just not one of them.”

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  1. says

    Hopefully the small independant bookshops will return. There is a large potential audience for those that specialise, and also maintain an internet presence. Booksellers can cater to both local and international customers at the same time.

    Good riddance to the likes of Borders and Barnes & Noble…

  2. says

    It is a quaint myth to think that capitalism is about competition and the freedom of ideas that implies. Capitalism is in reality, of course, a much more Darwinistic philosophy. Competition is only an initial stage which ultimately ends in one dominant organization controlling the entire market area. A good illustration is Wal-Mart. In most of America’s towns and smaller cities, it is now all but impossible for small, local businesses to compete. If there is any variation, it is usually in the form of oligarchies where a small number of large corporations share the market, but whose business practices are so similar that competition is only very minor. Lowes and Home Depot are examples as are most of our petroleum companies.

    Small bookstores are eaten by Barnes & Noble which is eaten by Amazon and so on. Capitalism can only exist by destroying the old and constantly opening new markets reached by new and more efficient technologies. If capitalism does not grow new sources of capital it dies, so it must constantly revolutionize the instruments of production. These new markets and sources of material also require constant imperial expansion.

    It is thus the very nature of capitalism to destroy cultural traditions and social relations. Everlasting uncertainty and agitation is the capitalistic norm. All that is solid melts into air. A culture of detritus and constant movement evolves. As an example, think of our decimated cities and the move to the suburbs. Think of the haunting relics of our rust belt. Nothing is sacred.

    So where is the place for a little bookstore in a society that cannot even maintain a city?

    (And of course, militarism in the service of capital must become a dominant part of society.)

    That is also why artists like Calder have such an important position. In what is a de facto one-party state we must have elegant beauty without ideas that challenge. That doesn’t make his work any less beautiful or even less profound. It just makes it good for a totalizing society where artistic thought cannot challenge – unless it is perhaps couched in some impenetrable irony. Or unless it is so marginalized it is not a threat, a kind of de-fanged symbol of free speech just like my writing here.

    (And by the way, one might assume by reading this that I’m some sort of Marxist, but I’m not. That was just another totalizing system.)

  3. says

    I love the story of the time Calder showed up at the Princeton, NJ train station to give a talk at the opening of a show of his wire sculptures. The student assigned to meet him at the station was concerned that Calder had forgotten his sculptures on the train. He asked Calder where he left the sculptures, and Calder pulled wire and pliers out of his pocket!

    This exhibition didn’t have enough of his “drawing in 3D” wire works. They’re the 3D equivalent of drawing w/o lifting up your pencil. When they are lit well, they make the most fantastic shadows, too.

    I wish they had shown more of the circus videos.

    I’m a big fan of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering Art and Math) and Calder’s work embodies so much of the imagination and technical expertise that go into “making”. I enjoyed touring the show w/ my daughter and some of her classmates.

    How do those sculptures stay balanced? That’s a good time to talk to kids about center of mass (CoM). Did you know that Calder held a patent on a device to locate the CoM of irregularly shaped objects?

    Leave your contact info at my blog if you want to tour Calder and Hockney with a PhD physicist and art fan.

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