Jim O’Rourke :: Calder Walk (Whitney Museum)


As one never steps into the same river twice, so one never glimpses a Calder mobile in quite the same way again. Once set into motion, the pieces in “Alexander Calder: Hypermobility,” now on display at the Whitney Museum, rotate and revolve, their starry components tracing elegant and elegantly perturbed orbits. From a complex premise–cubist simultaneity extended into three dimensions–the mid-century sculptor arrived at the playful innovation we now associate more with a child’s nursery than with international modernism: where once there seemed to be stasis, there is instead only pure, fleeting relation.

Jim O’Rourke’s latest composition aspires to complement (and, in a way, even helps to clarify) this dimension of Calder’s work. Commissioned for Hypermobility, “Calder Walk” is a work of extended, atmospheric avant-jazz ingeniously embedded in the exhibit by way of a stream accessible on the museum’s website. A natural outgrowth of the Whitney’s adventurous multimedia programming, and in particular of Jay Sanders’ superb music curation, the result is an experience as amusing as it is melancholic, paradoxically lonely and communal.

Like the material that inspired it*, “Calder Walk” resists yielding a complete picture from any one vantage point. Instead, it accumulates tension through its loose, ambling structure, suggesting repetition without ever precisely retracing its own slippery footsteps. O’Rourke’s distinctive brass arrangement sets the tone, fading in and out over a slide guitar, evoking the sculptures’ elongated, flexible grace. Absentminded piano chords join the mix, along with hustling drums–a montage-signifier of stop-start glances and shuffling feet.

Jim O’Rourke :: Calder Walk

But this shuffling doesn’t belong to any particular individual–one’s pace in the gallery is much more meditative. Instead, O’Rourke conjures the crowd, its many walks occurring at once, generating the exhibition for itself as it observes: alone and together, shifting, multi-perspectival, hypermobile. A trumpet calls out the apex of the chaos, and then the sliding theme returns in another, more alien modulation. We’re travelling beyond the exhibition now, out of the museum and out of New York altogether, into the deep time of memory and contemplation. It’s into this indeterminacy that “Calder Walk” drifts from view, a fitting end for a work that stands (and shifts) on its own merit. words / r meehan

* “Calder Walk” is not the first musical tribute to the artist, nor the most far out: consider Earle Brown’s “Calder Piece” (1963-66), composed for percussion quartet, to be ‘conducted’–and performed on–the massive Chef d’orchestre mobile sculpture.

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