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Calder Jewelry

Alexander Calder must have loved his sister’s dolls. In fact, starting in 1906 he began making jewelry for them. This premise sets the tone for the “Calder Jewelry” exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) in Balboa Park, as delightful, humorous, and appealing to anyone that loves accessories. Producing over 1,500 pieces of jewelry (many gifts to his wife, some collected by Peggy Guggenheim, worn by Georgia O'Keeffe, and featured on Angelica Huston the cover of The New York Times Magazine) this exhibit will leave you wondering, “How much are they worth?”

Well, just last week on October 21, 2009 at Sotheby’s Rare Jewels and Objects D’art; a Superb Collection, A Brass Necklace, By Alexander Calder sold for $245,500. Granted, the works on this exhibit are not for sale and that is a wonderful thing. On loan and co-organized by the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida and the Calder Foundation, New York, this collection of tiaras, earrings, broaches, belt buckles, and rings are together for the first major museum show dedicated to only his jewelry.

Mostly credited for inventing the mobiles, Calder’s fascination with movement is carefully considered in each piece of jewelry. Calling his jewels “wearable art” is both contentious and obvious in "The Jealous Husband" which was worn by Angelica Huston for the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1976. Created and molded from brass wire, this theatrical necklace has spikes on the shoulders! Huston, wearing a simple black turtle neck and hair pulled back, becomes a human pedestal for this piece. Imagine walking into a room wearing this necklace and be assured that you would be invisible. This raises the question, did Calder intend this to be worn or just displayed? This necklace is more of a weapon than a charming fashion accessory. Moreover, the wearer of these pieces would sacrifice their personal space for the sake of dressing in/within the jewelry. Either way, it’s fabulous, especially because you become part of it. You become the accessory to the accessory.

Divided into three dark rooms, each is a unique one-of-kind piece of jewelry by Calder. Either made of gold, copper, brass, metal, steel, or silver, each twist and bend and spiral appear so delicate that they seem soft. These mini-mobiles are created under the same light as his larger works of art yet he allowed himself to have fun with each design. Perhaps, however, because most were intended as gifts, it is noted that he did sell some to make extra cash during the war. The exhibition also includes a wooden box labeled “Calder” that he used to transport the jewelry to trunk shows. I was especially moved by the stories behind some of the pieces. One such story was how Calder created a simple spiral gold engagement ring for his fiancé Louisa James from Boston, whom he met on a trip from Europe to NYC in 1929 (one of many gifts to his wife throughout their marriage). He titled it “Medusa”, referring to the ringlets in her hair.

Calder’s technical approach to making jewelry is as solid as his large monumental works, yet years beyond their time. Keep in mind as you view each piece that they were created in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. This collection is very avant-garde to say the least, even tribal. Some pieces would even suggest that he was very fond with African or primitive art as seen in “Necklace, 1940”. This brass wire necklace reminds me of the neck rings used by some African and Asian cultures to stretch their necks.

"The works in this show are miniature mobiles and stabiles, related to and no less beautiful than the work that is so familiar to us from its sitting in civic plazas,” comments Derrick R. Cartwright, SDMA's Executive Director. “They are, at the same time, unquestionably intimate and intensely personal expressions. In the end, Calder's jewelry pieces are exquisite demonstrations of this major artist's contributions to the history of art, which should not be missed.” Additionally, the SDMA exhibition will be the only west coast museum hosting this collection. So, having said that, make sure to stop by the SDMA and treat yourself to something momentous, yet, small enough to wear on your finger.