We’d been talking about going for months, and the Calder exhibit itself was only “up” for a few more weeks at SFMOMA (or so we thought). My mother and I entered the gallery space on the third floor after a long drive up the coast and three trips over the park across the street.
On the second floor, she’d just renewed our dual membership, in person because she qualified for the senior discount and needed to show proof. The woman behind the kiosk desk in front of the screens with their bright red backgrounds and white lettering thanked us for renewing and offered free audio tours for the visit.
The Michelin-starred restaurant on the ground floor, in situ, was “taking a break” and would be open again at five. Our timed tickets for the featured attraction, the Magritte, was at five-thirty, and we needed to eat first, and I was tired, so we’d crossed the street and walked (again) past the Google event setting-up all across the outdoor park areas of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Pallets forklifted out of box rental trucks, watched over by security guards, circling construction workers in hard hats scaling temporary white PVC constructions-approaching-sculpture. How did I know it was Google? Well, the cloud logo, in its primary colors, and the event badges from the convention center when we walked out of the parking garage. There were billboards, too, across the city.
I’d developed a sense for these things, my mother noted, and it always perked up at the load-ins, the load-outs. And by sense, I mean an obsession with how things were constructed, especially temporary productions, like a job site. You saw how everything was made, the curtain pulled back before the final layout was finished, and everything unfixed rolled across on black boxed wheels cushioned by their importance. There was a staging manager’s aspect to the whole thing, but no actors, and quite a mess. But it often felt like far too much attention to detail, is what I thought, to make something with such evident attention to details, just so on-brand with a theme orchestrated from a cohesive pattern in the chevroning palette of throw pillows amidst the seating areas on grass patches.
I thought of Versailles, and the palatial grounds and the holdings of court affairs. This afternoon party, built well ahead of time, for a lunch the next day, must have descended from that lineage of opulence. There was a power now in what these ideas could bring about.
We walked past it again after our late lunch on the way back into the museum and the exhibit on the third floor.
Given how much we had talked about it, the room itself felt smaller than expected. I read the wall signage title, the alexander calder in raised three dimensional text extruded from the wall, two shades of gray, all lower case, diagonal lines, the scaling up flat against the wall, as much a title for the cloud party across the street as it was for the exhibit itself, with its various sized maquettes, in bare metal, flat black, and full sizes.
It was the room full of Calder and his sculptured pieces. Geometries without platonic ideals, in vectors without calculation, full of some intersection of organic and playful. Nothing hanging from the ceiling, but large pieces on the ground almost like birds, fossils from his birthplace era of Pennsylvania steel.
The curator’s inscriptions on the wall were occasionally playful and discussed the title of the largest piece outside, The Kite That Never Flew (“even when placed outdoors and subjected to San Franciso’s mighty winds, will never fly away”) and its smaller scaled model inside. Oh, what an asshole, I thought, telling a whole brilliant, clever story in his title.
Discounting everything else I knew about art, which was not all that much, except that I kept going back about as frequently as anyone that I knew, I had a funny question. Probably a stupid question, really:
Why did we know this was the title? And how?
How, specifically, did those words, that little ironic sentence, get transmitted, along with all of the other info that seems to trail along these objects. It wasn’t like a book, or a song, or a play, where the title was printed with the thing in itself directly attached to it, in the middle of the situation. When this wasn’t in a museum, how was it titled? He signed the work, I could see outside on the larger piece, blown in with a torch of some kind, a large C with a tail that crossed a smaller A. But the title itself lay elsewhere — if it lay anywhere else at all besides the text on the wall, or in the book with photographic reproductions and long essay — and in the case of this damn Kite thing, it really seemed to add a lot to your demanding interpretation of the object itself to know the title.
Was there some official way in which a piece of art was titled? And who authenticated that? What if they changed their mind? At what point was the piece done and then the title affixed to it, all that semiological stuff happening. Somewhere else, behind the scenes, well before I was born or stepped into the exhibit, some consortium of humans conspired to make sure this title continued. There was an unseen process at work here, and I felt like my question wouldn’t find a definitive answer.
Was it just a part of a convention, between the artist, the steelworkers who helped him generate the pieces, the art critics (who demanded some words of some kind beyond the pointing and nodding and shaking of hands and heads), the curators who needed a title to help identify and interpret, the buyers or philanthropists who would invest in the piece and then share it. “Purchase, by exchange, through fractional gifts” seemed as much a title of significance and complication as everything else I was reading— who owned it. Yes, Calder having finishing (or perhaps having only even conceived) probably just told someone, or wrote in his notebooks, and discussed the piece as it was created. To the museum itself, it had another name, “FC.196,” taxonomically nearly the two hundredth artifact of the “Fisher Collection.”
His smaller pieces in the exhibit, full of color and tensile mobile equilibrium each sat on their own pedestal, built just to the exact proportions, long drawn out horizontal dimensions. My mother stood before them.
“I look at these, and they just make me feel very happy,” she confessed.
I liked the primary colors and how the shapes diminished their straightforwardness and their purity of hue. But I wanted to know who built these light gray boxes, who made that curatorial decision, as elegant in their proportion, they were as much the experience, even if you might think they disappeared. They didn’t, at least not for me. I wanted to know how they’d arrived at those diamond shapes, building space around these specific pieces that would be temporary. The full-scale pieces were more obvious in placement. They needed to be outside, and there was only so much room. Were they craned in? Or, given the nuts and bolts, did the pieces come apart for installation? His work felt like that, even the smaller pieces like you could have put them together yourself, despite how balanced and full of movement they were.
They were like dinosaur fossils. Everything in the room, from the scaling, a reconstruction.
The small maquette, unpainted, bare metal, probably could be flown.