It’s always wise to keep expectations in check when talking about an exhibit as important and unexpected as “Calder: Monumental, ” this summer’s outdoor show at the Denver Botanic Gardens. On paper, it is the kind of event you rush out to see: Eight, large-scale wonders by one of the giants of 20th century art, placed purposefully among the flowers and ponds of the city’s beloved green space.
And you should see it, but after a word of caution. Alexander Calder’s wide-scale popularity rests on his mobiles, those impossible metal assemblages that hang from ceilings and spin and sway on the slightest breeze. This show is mostly made from his stabiles, the stationary abstract sculptures that hold themselves up from the ground.
They’re not lesser works, just a different sort, and they’re easy to like, marked by Calder’s signature material moves — sheet metal, cut into various geometric shapes, that are assembled into three-dimensional forms and usually painted bright orange or deep black. Some stabiles serve as city icons, dressing up public plazas in places like Chicago and Paris.
And they do have their own kind of motion built-in. Unlike Calder’s mobiles that perform for you, his stabiles are viewer-activated. As you walk around them, they morph into different shapes, offering a constantly evolving experience.
That makes them easily at home in the garden, where the greenery itself is in a constant state of change. The fixed, metal works actually complement the leafing, blossoming, blooming, shedding natural attractions around them.
With titles like “The Crab” and “6 Dots Over a Mountain, ” they’re amusing simply to look at, and to figure out exactly what Calder wants you to see. Sometimes that’s easy. “A Two-Faced Guy, ” from 1969, has two, flat heads with exaggerated features intersecting each other right down the middle. It’s abstract, but probably the most representational work in the show.