some thoughts on constellations

(after Calder / Miró Constellations at PACE and ACQUAVELLA Galleries, New York City)

Susanna Galbraith

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The day after I landed in New York City, I opened the Brooklyn Rail onto an advertisement for an exhibition that got me excited, saying to myself: yes, this is why I came here, stuff like this. It was referred to as Calder/ Miró Constellations, and it was taking place in not one but two spaces in the city. There were two addresses in front of me: PACE, 32 East 57th Street, New York; ACQUAVELLA, 18 East 79th Street, New York. Having just arrived in this city of legendary enormity and strangeness, feeling very small and gearing myself up for the plunge into its depths while cosied in the nook of a Brooklyn loft, these addresses meant very little to me. But I could look at my map of Manhattan (where its size is made to seem somewhat more manageable) and follow the grid of streets and avenues like a graph, and mark them, these pinpoint places, with an asterisk or star. Moreover, I could join up the stars on my map, making lines between where I am, where the subway can take me, and each of the gallery spaces. Doing this I can’t help thinking: well, here’s a constellation… here are some disparate places with a narrative of relation all of their own, something that can be superimposed onto the cosmic density of activity, making a web of connection across NYC. That’s good, I thought, there’s something in that. And what a comfort to see a shape emerge on the map that might encode a story. So I made a plan to connect the dots.

Although it seemed obvious to me, with my annotated map, that this event in the art world here was itself, in a way, a constellation, the title of this exhibition-in-two-installations is not referring to itself, to its own methods of exhibition making. At least, not in its primary sense. First and foremost it is a simple reference to a title shared by two series of works, one made by Alexander Calder and one by Joan Miró. These series were completed during roughly the same time period, but, as the gallery notes are keen to insist, while they were outside of contact with each other. This is the “remarkable” story of this exhibition project: that Miró and Calder, separated by war and the Atlantic ocean, “totally isolated from each other” (Marc Glimcher), somehow created, simultaneously, sets of works that seem to have much in common, both conceptually and aesthetically. The story is that they seem to have “tapped into a powerful artistic current” at work beneath a surface of cultural exchange as they reached beyond the context of second world war atrocities toward more universal and timeless visual languages (Glimcher). Furthermore, these series’ were, by different peers in the art world and supposedly independently of each other, labelled “Constellations”. Andre Breton baptised Miró’s series of gouache on paper works with the term seventeen years after they were made, and Calder’s 1943 compositions, a “significant departure” from the work for which he was already known, were referred to as such by Marcel Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney the same year. (Quotations taken from PACE exhibition guide).

The apparent mysticism of this simultaneity imbues the exhibition with a novel mystique, and the separation of the artists during their period of production is effectively mimicked in miniature by the distance between the instalments in the PACE and ACQUAVELLA spaces. There is no overlap: the PACE space exclusively houses Calder’s works, and ACQUAVELLA Miró’s. The visitor, should they make the trek between the two galleries and complete the exhibition experience, is responsible for bringing the works of each artist into the same room, carrying the memory of Calder sculptures into proximity of Miró’s gouaches or vice versa. In galleries of modern art, it is quite common practice to display the Calders and Miros of a collection near to each other. This is not only, I would assume, because they were producing work at the same time, but because so much of their work makes use of very similar motifs (often fine lines connecting shapes in vibrant primary colours across apparently empty spaces) in two different dimensions. It is a satisfying shift to move between them with a few steps, refocusing your eyes between painting and sculpture, reading one in light of the other. In this sense, excited though I was by the prospect, the comparison being made in this particular exhibition isn’t all that innovative. However, the amount of responsibility handed over to the visitors, perhaps, is more so. The title “Constellations” plants the seed for a comparison to be made between the two series’ of works, but the participation of the visitor, physically connecting the dots across New York City, is what allows this to manifest. Kim, at the desk of the ACQUAVELLA, is keen to emphasise that this project was a collective effort, involving the contributing capacities of both gallery owners, the artists’ family members, curators, commentators, and other staff, to pull these groups of works into place in their present instalments. Listening to her the word comes back to me again, as an appropriate metaphor, chiming with the contemporary buzz-words of collective and cross-boundary: it was a constellation of efforts that allowed this project to come into being, a story to emerge among disparate points. And through their spatial engagement with the exhibition, I believe, and feel that I experienced, the gallery goer becomes an implied participant in this process.

At this stage there is call for some comments about the art works themselves. Of course, these rich works open doors onto many potential areas of discussion, but as I have already touched on the significance of the exhibition spaces, and a visitor’s movement between them, I will limit myself, roughly, to this ‘topic’, or something like it: that is, space, how it is approached and negotiated by Miro and Calder in their so-called Constellations, and how this contributes to a visitor’s relationship with the works. The fact that these two artists, in the case of their Constellations, are working with two different dimensions of space, two- and three-dimensional, I think makes this a generative area of comparison and contrast.

On the wall of the first room in the Acquavella, I read how Miró describes his method in this series: using a clean sheet of watercolour paper to clean his brushes on (dirtied from the making of the last picture), this page would be the foundation of the subsequent picture, and so on. Whether this is to be taken simply at face value or not as a technique (the ground tending to be oil wash and the figures gouache), by this proposed method Miró draws a continuous line of connection between each of the works in the series, planting the residue of a previous work as a seed of the one that will follow. In this way, the genetic stuff of figure and ground in each work are emphasised as being essentially of the same stuff: diluted pigment, that fundamental medium of malleable colour in which we can pictorially realise the imagined. The ground, the two-dimensional rectangular space occupied by the foreground lines and figures, impresses as a primordial mess in which the DNA of all realised and potential forms of this world of constellations, of which each work is a snapshot, is manifest and mixing.

The term “constellation”, by its denotation of visible relationships between distant stars, connotes the sky, outer-space, spaces beyond earthly conception.The ground in Miró’s constellations is not charged with the gravity of earth: there is no horizon, no weight as we understand it, standing in the room of the gallery. I can’t help thinking that they have an energy of composition similar to the all-over works of certain mid-century abstract painters - Pollock, Krasner, Tobey, Sobel, for example- whose works generate in the onlooker the sense of looking up into sky or down into a microscopic world, not laterally into the space we walk around in, even while looking at these works hung on a wall. (I subsequently read in Arthur Lubow’s New York Times article on the exhibition that “The 1945 exhibition [of these works] caused a sensation in New York art circles. Indeed, some critics believe that the “all-over” style of painting that Jackson Pollock adopted in 1947, extending his forms over the entire canvas without conferring priority to any one area, came in response to seeing the Mirós”.) Figures and forms, often recalling isolated body parts and entire faces alongside primitive star-shapes, are suspended in a primordial space without any implication of earthly gravity or edges. It is the relationships between the figures, their push and pull, balance of separation and connection, which engender the magnetic movements and various drives in the world of the work. These are not, it seems, dictated by the implied indistinct and unreadable environment they occupy, but created between each other. In this way, it might be said that they are like planets in ‘outer-space’, specifically, within an interdependent solar system, a body of parts each impacting on the others. It is this that might be said to give the images Miró makes here a ‘creatureliness’, something with which we, as composite sensible creatures can identify, and a quality shared with Calder’s constellations.

In the gallery notes provided by PACE the suggestion is made that “Calder’s Constellations… offer insight into his preoccupation with space and our experience of it”. True, the particularities of how his sculptures interact with space is crucial to the impact of these works as we stand with them in a room. That forms are suspended in an anonymous space (a primordial-soup sky with Miró, and a changeable hypothetical exhibition space in the case of Calder) is an obvious point of comparison between their Constellations. In both cases, dynamic relations between forms and figures is, for the most part, dominant over any pull of environmental gravity. Of course, while Miró’s figures occupy a fantastical space encoded on the flat of a page, those of Calder’s, being elements of sculpture, actually occupy the gallery’s ‘real-world’ space, and are therefore, of course, interacting with gravity. However, Calder has a tendency to counter this energy in the case of his 1943 Constellations; although some structures hang from the ceiling or high points on the wall, he tends to use rigid wires to connect his forms that make up the sculptures, in a way that often makes them appear quasi-indifferent, or resistant at least, to the effects of such a pull to the ground. (This contrasts with some of his mobile sculptures from other years in which gravity is embraced rather than resisted).

Calder’s Constellations are intertwined with the same space as that is occupied by gallery goers. I can’t help but feel that there is something distinctly un-confrontational about these things, unlike some other sculptural objects encountered in galleries that, by declaring their three-dimensional bulk, can seem to compete with you in an exhibition room. This, I think, has to do with how much Calder has incorporated emptiness into his Constellations, rather than pushing against it with presence. The sculptures being intertwined with the shared emptiness of the gallery facilitates an intimacy between visitor and art work; there is room for us within these gappy forms, and they converse with each other as we converse with them, and breathe the same air as we do, exchanging one empty space for another as they move from gallery to gallery with different exhibitions. It keeps them alive and keeps them adjusting to the vision of different onlookers, meaning different things. In spite of the notable stasis of these constellations as sculptures (much of Calder’s other work tending to move with air currents and balance), their dialogue with the space and light of each new environment they occupy must keep them fluctuating and changeful. The shadows they cast make up another important dimension of these works, the shapes and relations of which, of course, change with each new installation and its lighting design. The constituent parts of the Constellations (by which I mean the wooden biomorphic forms painted in bright primary colours, connected by stiff metal rods) remind me of nerve cells, reaching out to pass on a sensation, and through a dialogue of such sensations, engender a specific feeling across an invisible chaos of air-stuff.  In such a way, the images created in these Constellations, alien but oddly familiar, seeming defiant of what we know as time and space, much like in the case of Miró’s, have a creaturely quality. They seem models both of body and of mind at the same time in a manner that, I find, triggers an almost affectionate sense of identification with these funny things.

The word “constellation” pops up with reasonable frequency in the current cultural climate. On encountering it in the title of this exhibition, the bell it immediately rings for me has to do with a recent visit to the Tate Liverpool; here, the notion of “constellation” is the key to how the permanent collection has been displayed for public viewing. On the walls of the stairwells of this Tate are diagrams reminiscent of astrological maps, made up of artists’ names that cluster together variously and are joined up by lines. In the gallery spaces, the works of these artists are arranged in loose groups accordingly. By way of this method visitors are encouraged to notice how artists from different periods, of different genders and nationalities, working in different mediums, associated with different schools and movements, relate to each other in ways that transcend such traditional categories, creating pathways into art that might be unfamiliar or strange, and encouraging new comparisons that might generate new understandings of the works and what they can reveal about the world. It is a leap beyond the Venn diagram, and a curatorial gesture that seems to shake off the rigidity of conventional modes of art historical categorisation. (For example, in one cluster, a Glenn Ligon conceptual installation from 2006 interacts with 1960s abstract works by Ad Reinhardt and Franz Kline). Arguably this method of display encourages a different, potentially more involving, interaction between visitors and artworks; the boundaries having been transgressed, a visitor is more free to consider the way they themselves might connect with the works and the artists who made them, or indeed how they might, as a person and as an observer, participate in a constellation and extend it.

I am aware that the above might appear quite a lengthy digression from the topic at hand, but it was the power of the concept of “constellation” that lingered with me as something particularly significant after my visit to the Calder / Miró exhibition, and I feel it is deserving of some attention. For me at least, it seems to denote a model for thinking about culture, world, history, ourselves etc. that is useful and particularly suited to our contemporary moment. There is something about how increasingly accessible the far reaches and depths of the world have been made to those facilitated by the internet that resonates with the notion of constellating. This access, I believe, has the fluctuating effect of both intensifying our experience of commonality, and at the same time intensifying our sense of inherent isolation. It leaves us questioning and seeking. Moreover we have become, in many realms, suspicious of single-sided narratives, often looking for underlying alternative ways that the dots might be connected between various happenings and ideas. Generally – at least, I would like to think this is the case – there has emerged a tendency to be more aware of the complex networks of influence at work in history and culture and people, the infinitude of different pressures on every moment of change, every action and imagining. Even if there are those who ignore it, there is a necessary drive to identify, by whatever means, with those who are far from us, because in so many ways we have the potential capacity augment our exposure to the details of their far-away lives. (On Twitter I can speak to someone on the other side of the world, from a community entirely removed from my own. On Google Maps I can experience, virtually, what it is like to walk on a street equally distant from where I am. And so on.) I don’t mean to suggest that the exhibition at hand, Calder / Miró Constellations, ventured into any real exploration of these matters. I don’t even mean to suggest that I have consolidated these thoughts into any sort of firm cultural critique. It is merely the case that experiencing Calder / Miró Constellations, both in terms of the individual works in each artist’s series and as an event in the art world, got me thinking along such lines… The Constellations of Calder and Miró were born out of a world fragmented and overwhelmed by a whole new breed of warfare and discrimination. In a different way, the media-driven world we live in now is also defined by fragmentation and overexposure. And so perhaps, even, some of the satisfaction that might be derived from such artworks and curatorial experiences as I have been discussing above, from the concept of “constellation” itself, has something to do with such a context, and with the very fact of our being something small and undefinable, reaching out across the vast, muddled and seemingly vacuous expanse of all-that-there-is toward other small and undefinable things, to make a connection, a story, a feeling, a way of knowing. (Just a thought.)

Calder/Miró Constellations is on view at the Acquavella Galleries 79th St, New York, until 26th May, and PACE Gallery 57th St until 30th June 2017. A three volume accompanying publication, including, in addition to art historical and critical essays, Andre Breton’s prose poems in response to Miró’s Constellations and correspondence between the two artist, will soon be released.

Quotations from exhibition guide, Calder / Miró Constellations, PACE and Acquavella Galleries, New York City. This was also the source of all art historical facts surrounding the production of these works that has been referenced here.

Thanks to Kim for the chat.