Professor Barbara Zabel, center, with her brother and sister at the opening of "Calder's Portraits" at the National Portrait Gallery in March.
Barbara Zabel, professor of art history, is the guest curator of a new exhibition, "Calder's Portraits: A New Language," at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The exhibition, on display now through August 14, is the first dedicated solely to the portraiture of famed artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976), best known for his abstract mobiles and stabiles.
In addition to paintings and drawings, the exhibition features portraits made of wire.
"For these, Calder has taken a roll of industrial wire and shaped it into portraits of considerable character," Zabel said.
Zabel, who specializes in American art and 20th century portraiture, said this unique use of wire to create three-dimensional figures pushed the boundaries of portraiture and sculpture.
"Many of Calder's wire portraits are designed to hang from the ceiling, so that they are free to move and shift position. The portraits thus seem to come to life, suggesting changing facial expressions," Zabel said. "Making portraits in wire was revolutionary in Calder's time, when artists typically worked with mass - casting in bronze or carving in wood or stone."
Impressed by Calder's innovative portraits, one Chicago Tribune critic wrote in 1929, "The longer one observes [Calder's sculptures], the more one is convinced … that here is a new language."
Zabel has authored a book in conjunction with the exhibit. Also called "Calder's Portraits: A New Language," the book's organization is based on Calder's subjects: self portraits, entertainment figures, sports icons and friends and colleagues from the art world.
"This exhibition is unique in that it includes contemporary caricatures and photographs from the National Portrait Gallery's extensive collection," Zabel said. "This allows us to view Calder's portraits of such celebrities as Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh and artists including Saul Steinberg and Marcel Duchamp against the backdrop of popular culture of the time, and to consider how Calder blurred the line between 'fine art' and popular and commercial art."
Zabel is also the curator of the upcoming Lyman Allyn Museum Exhibit, "Face Off: Portraits by Contemporary Artists," on display April 10 - Sept. 18, 2011. A professor at Connecticut College since 1977, Zabel plans to retire at the end of the academic year.