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In 1930, sculptor and artist Alexander Calder sent his mother a birthday present. It was a necklace, fashioned from brass wire and string and bits of broken pottery. His accompanying note said: I've been making wire jewelry and think I'll really do something with it - eventually. He did. It is the 110th anniversary of Calder's birth, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg takes us to an exhibition of his jewelry at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

SUSAN STAMBERG: You've seen Calder's big stabiles in public spaces all over the world: black or bright red steel, arcing like dinosaur ballerinas on impossibly tiny toes. You've seen his mobiles: floaty shapes suspended from wires meeting a breeze. But Calder's jewelry? Well, yes.

Ms. ELISABETH AGRO (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): The jewelry is not a separate thing he did. He did it alongside everything he did. It's another aspect of his sculpture.

STAMBERG: We don't know about Calder's jewelry, curator Elisabeth Agro says, because he made it mostly for his family and some friends. His pal, painter Joan Miro got a ring, a hunk of yellow and blue porcelain wrapped with brass wire.

Ms. AGRO: That's that kind of wire that your winter coat comes back from the dry cleaners. Seriously. That is the kind of gauge of wire that a lot of these brass pieces are made out of, and it's not a beautiful wire. But somehow, what he does with it is fantabulous. I mean, look at that.

STAMBERG: Rings, necklaces, pins, earrings, bracelets, a tiara even, in brass, steel, silver and bits of old glass or crockery.

Ms. AGRO: He's not a jeweler. There are no welds holding this together. I mean, he's working on an anvil on a bench, but he's not doing what jewelers do. He's not making links of things. He's taking wire, and he's doing stuff with it that no one else was doing with basic wire.

STAMBERG: Hammering the thin wire on his anvil, flattening and broadening it into an eighth or a quarter of an inch or less, and then squiggling it into shapes: leaves, circles and especially spirals.

Ms. AGRO: Which is very potent as a symbol, if you think about it -fertility. The spiral is one of the oldest forms of ornament. You see it on cave drawings. I mean, it's a very ancient symbol.

STAMBERG: So there's here's something eternal about it.

Ms. AGRO: Absolutely, absolutely.

STAMBERG: And when you put it on a wedding ring…

Ms. AGRO: Well, there you go.

STAMBERG: He made a gold spiral wedding ring for Louisa James. They met onboard a ship from Europe to New York in 1929. Louisa: a well-bred Bostonian.

Ms. AGRO: And she marries this bohemian.

STAMBERG: And became his muse for life. Sandy has tremendous originality, she wrote her mother, imagination and humor. Some years on NPR, grandson, Alexander Sandy Rower, remembered that humor in Calder's personality and his work.

Mr. ALEXANDER ROWER (Grandson of Alexander Calder): People would burst out laughing. I mean, I was with him many times in an exhibition, and people would walk in and just laugh. And he loved that.

STAMBERG: Alexander Calder like poking fun, too. Here's a clip from a 1950s TV interview.

(Soundbite of television interview)

Unidentified Man: How do you know when you're finished?

Mr. ALEXANDER CALDER (Sculptor, Artist): When it's dinnertime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Back to the jewelry. Curator Elisabeth Agro says Calder began making it when he was just a little boy.

Ms. AGRO: And his sister needs jewelry for her dolls, and so he fashioned some jewelry for her out of telephone wire. We can all think of a moment when we were children and the telephone guy came and was repairing - I made jewelry, and we all did this. But he just kept going. He had the smarts to sort of say I got something here, and I'm good at this, and I'm going to keep making this. And it all started then, and he just continued doing it.

STAMBERG: He got lots of encouragement at home. Sandy Calder's mother was a painter. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a prominent sculptor. He did the gorgeous "Fountain of Three Rivers" in Philadelphia's Logan Circle. And Sandy's grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, made the big statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia's City Hall.

There are Calders all over Philadelphia, and now in the art museum, a necklace that runs slim silver circles from neck to waist.

Ms. AGRO: It is as thin as I guess the wire you might put on - if you were to use silver for braces. You know, it's that kind of wire. And he's made very beautiful ringlets, silver circles, so that it looks like chain mail, something like a medieval vest that you might see. But it has a V-neck, and it comes down tunic-like to your midriff. This is the most delicate of them all, and the fact that it's not one solid piece of wire making the whole thing, it's many pieces of wire creating each little circle.

STAMBERG: Now the circle is a circle is a circle, but in Alexander Calder's hands, this basic shape is reinvented every single time. No two circles are alike in this airy silver vest, which is why he never wanted his jewelry to be mass-produced. He liked making it one-of-a-kind, by hand, with affection. And curator Elisabeth Agro reminds us, making it of a piece with the preoccupations of all his art.

Ms. AGRO: Space. It's about occupying space, and he just sees the body as a grounding element for this other aspect of his work - not that the body gets in the way. The body is one part of this larger work of art when you put it on.

STAMBERG: "Calder Jewelry" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until November 2nd then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in December and then to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The Calder Foundation and the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach are the organizers, and there is not a single diamond or ruby in sight. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can see the amazing wire swirls on the necklace that he made for his mom by going to npr.org.

AMOS: And you can hear a few notes inspired by Alexander Calder…

(Soundbite of song, "Peaches and Regalia")

AMOS: Musician and composer Frank Zappa said he loved Calder's work. In a 1990 autobiography, Zappa compared his music to a Calder mobile. In my compositions, he wrote, I employ a system of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases. Zappa recorded the piece we're hearing now, "Peaches and Regalia," in 1969. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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