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“David Beck: L’Opéra”

At the National Museum of American Art to April 25

“An Adventurous Spirit:

Calder at the Phillips Collection”

At the Phillips Collection to June 1999

Ever since Galatea stepped down from her pedestal, plastic artists have been answering the call of the fourth dimension. Some have abandoned their métier; Robert Bresson, trained as a painter, said he became a filmmaker because he wanted “to see the leaves on the trees moving.” Other painters and sculptors, avoiding such clean breaks with the past, have welcomed the element of time by incorporating motion into their works.

Kinetic art has had a fitful history. Its last great flowering was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a fertile time that prized experiment over expression. But as any scientist can tell you, life in the laboratory isn’t always rewarding; you’re lucky if the tiniest fraction of your work makes it into the bibliographies of future generations. Art at least has the advantage of hanging around. You can always see a George Rickey (one of his needle sculptures bobs outside the Hirshhorn right now), but when’s the last time anyone wrote about him?

Unlike pop and minimalism, whose mutations survive to the present day, kinetic art has few postmodern analogues. The exceptions—Chris Burden’s giant, motorcycle-propelled flywheel; Mark Pauline’s battling, carcass-flipping robots; Charles Ray’s imperceptibly whirling disc, which began its life as an ankle-twisting booby trap—see motion less as an aesthetic opportunity than as a physical threat. In many cases, the siren call of virtual or real motion as the final frontier for the pioneering abstractionist turned out to be only the late-modernist death rattle. Novelty lured the unwitting into artistic cul-de-sacs, each dead end only trivially distinct from the others. Yaacov Agam would recoil to think that his “polyphonic” compositions have achieved their down-market apotheosis in the multi-image billboard and the lenticular CD cover. And master’s candidates should note

that a thesis on dysfunctional shopping-mall fountains of the 1970s remains to

be written.

I happen to think we could use a little history-as-progress, future-is-now novelty as a tonic to all our dire millennializing, but I doubt we’ll get it in time. The kinetic art we deserve, Jean Tinguely’s Tools 85, is on view in the National Building Museum’s otherwise prosaic “Tools as Art IV: Material Illusions.” The dada-inspired Swiss understood that, formal considerations aside, mechanized kinetic art was doomed from the start—it simply wears out. He decided to beat time to the punch. In the ’50s and ’60s, Tinguely made his name with sculptures that shook themselves apart in half-engineered/half-aleatory fits.

In contrast, the sepulchral Tools 85, made six years before the sculptor’s 1991 death, is in it for the long haul. Press a button and the motorized agglomeration of industrial junk creaks into motion. A heavy chain softly clanks; a hammer pings into a section of hexagonal pipe and skitters down its side; a hacksaw gnaws through the crescent of a wrench. By the time it’s done, we may be as well.

San Francisco artist David Beck is being billed as a postmodernist, but that doesn’t make him up-to-date. The self-conscious play of story and style is the least interesting thing about his 6-and-a-half-foot-tall animated model opera house. Not content to let but a single drama unfold within the structure’s glassed confines, Beck has placed characters from Aida onstage, clowns from I Pagliacci in the pit, and figures from the Ring, Turandot, and Mefistofele in the audience. They are housed in a gleeful architectural pastiche of faux-finished Moorish, classical, and Victorian gothic modes.

The craftsmanship and pageantry of L’Opéra are what get people poking around it like a bunch of maiden aunts (there are now greasy noseprints on the side windows) and what set the New York Times to gushing, “Wee it may be, but it’s much grander than the Metropolitan.” More revealing is Beck’s absorption of centuries of clockwork art tradition, as he subtly invites us on a journey into the history of mechanical tableaux.

In its multitudes of figures—elephants with trunks asway, singers with mouths aflap—L’Opéra recalls the larger dioramas of the Musée Mécanique, a San Francisco seaside attraction containing scores of functioning penny-arcade machines, from gypsy fortune tellers to ghoulish scenes of graveyard surprises. Unlike today’s electronic games, the turn-of-the-century and prewar contraptions aren’t for playing—they’re for looking. The most populous setups are a fair and a farm, each of which springs to life at the drop of a coin as tiny crowds move to the rhythm of hidden forces parceled out via intricate systems of levers and pulleys.

Other machines at the Musée operate solitary figures, among them the nightmarish one-woman sideshow Laughing Sal. Coarse they may be, but Sal and her ilk can probably trace their line back to European luxury stock. Between the Second Republic and World War I in the Marais quarter of Paris, makers such as Vichy, Phalibois, and Lambert painstakingly produced mechanical figures that performed intricate actions, from smoking to dancing to playing music. Like L’Opéra, many of these automatons are a type of meta-art: They are artworks designed to produce or mimic the production of art.

Whether it’s Pierrot serenading a glass-eyed moon or an acrobat doing handstands on the end of a ladder, in nearly every case the artistic product is performance; even the monkey artist attributed to Blaise Bontems only mimes the act of painting. In the 18th century, however, Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz and their assistants made figures, now in the collection of the Art and History Museum in Neuchâtel, capable of writing programmed sentences or executing sketches of, among other subjects, a dog or Louis XV.

These feats were made possible by superlative Swiss clockmaking techniques, but German Renaissance horology was advanced enough to produce marvels of its own. “The Clockwork Universe,” a 1980-81 exhibit seen locally at the National Museum of

History and Technology, established not only the growth of automatons out of clockmaking—for what is an automaton but a figure clock without the timepiece?—but also the theological underpinnings of artificial life.

In the most outré specimens from the period (1550-1650), clockwork is grisly predestination. “When the hours strike, the henchmen lash Christ,” reads the note to a figure clock by Nikolaus Schmidt the younger. In more lighthearted examples, mechanization leads to group harmony, as with a band of trumpeters taking up a tune, or breathes intelligence into dumb beasts, as with a bear beating out an alarm on a drum.

Clockmaking was a powerful metaphor for the creation of life. It remains so today. Donald Britton has identified in Walt Disney’s audioanimatronic Lincoln a gung-ho patriot’s desire to enact the resurrection of a fallen national hero. And the “design argument” for the existence of God the Creator retains enough force that Richard Dawkins named his 1986 explication of evolution The Blind Watchmaker, rebuffing creationists by attacking their most cherished analogy. Not that believers in “creation science” shouldn’t have sensed it coming. When it wasn’t people but planets that ground around on celestial gears, as in orreries, those often mechanized models of the solar system that appealed to the Enlightenment’s rational conception of nature, God seemed somewhat less of an issue. Models for more sophisticated systems were only a matter of time. (That said, if you don’t buy the design argument but want to feel its uncanny pull, apply it to Disney himself: Do you believe in him by virtue of any firsthand knowledge or because of what he has wrought?)

The idea of the artist as prime mover persists in L’Opéra—which the artist has labeled with a carving that reads, “Travail d’un Seul Homme”—though according to a rather irreverent theology. For Beck, all opera is opera buffa, all tragedy mere show. The victim of a decapitation sits in the audience, his head in his lap singing along with the rest of the crowd. Perhaps because theater is infinitely renewable (subject to limitless reinterpretation) and infinitely repeatable (there’s always another show, always some young Turk or understudy ready to take your role), in Beck’s world there’s a cure for everything, even death.

Like Beck, Alexander Calder started out with things akin to toys, but his playtime paradigm was considerably more down-to-earth. If Beck adopted the distanced, display-oriented aesthetic of French toys, of which the golden-age automaton was the most rarefied exemplar, Calder adapted it by making performances of Cirque Calder contingent upon the beneficent presence of its creator. It was Calder himself who made the trapeze artists fly and the strongman lift the weight.

But when Calder decided he wanted to see the leaves on the trees moving, he simply made trees—or, “mobiles,” as Marcel Duchamp, who said, “Calder’s art is the sublimation of a tree in the wind,” dubbed the dangling constructions. Suddenly the hand of the creator was everywhere, but power over his creations had been relinquished to benign nature. Nature being generally uncooperative on the benignity score, Calder’s creations are in fact hothouse flowers, better suited to gentle busses of central air than blasts of wind.

HVAC systems nonetheless make for mercurial gods, and most of the time they let Calders die of neglect. A particularly inspired installation of 13 small mobiles and stabiles, most from the ’40s, in the stairwell of the Phillips Collection’s Goh Annex is blessed with appropriately active currents.

The usually unworkable space (“clerestory” is the museum’s preferred term for it) is still a bit awkward, but only when there are crowds. You’re trying to look at the Calders while people are shuttling to and from the Hallmark photo collection on the third floor, and if you’re inclined to take your time—I gave it an hour up and down—you’re going to annoy a lot of people. Traffic being what it is, at least you’re unlikely to annoy the same person more than once, so I say feel free to make a nuisance of yourself.

You’ll get one hell of a payoff. The installation rises from the junk-art parody of nature to the superrefinement of its forces, from the tin-can Only Only Bird, which has a key for a pecker and takes its name from the Aborn’s Coffee vow of purity imprinted on its ass, to Snow Flurry, by turns becalmed and turbulent, possessing a meditative grace. The black discs of Cascading Spines are reminiscent of the spindled orbs of the orrery, and a 1943 Constellation confirms that Calder did hear the music of the spheres in his fragile universe; the disappointingly stationary stabiles serve mainly to reinforce how vital motion was to the existence of that universe. The maquettelike Pagoda and Rocket, set up on either side of the museum entrance, are the largest things on display, but they haven’t got a chance. Without trying to put on too much of a show, Calder’s mobiles make stillness seem a poverty. In motion, they are perpetually re-created.

Whether natural or mechanical, the forces at work in Calder’s and Beck’s art are more hows than whys. Movers without motive, they encourage our embrace of a world without reason, whose glories are to be found in the dazzling, unanswerable abundance of its whats.CP