photo by arnold newman, 1957, shirley collection

One night, lying on the deck of a ship in the Panama Canal in 1921, Alexander Calder found himself halfway between the sun and the moon. The sun, red, was rising. The moon, pale white, was vanishing. "When I have used spheres and discs," the artist once said, "I have intended that they should represent something more—the earth is a sphere, but also has miles of gas about it, volcanoes upon it, and the moon making circles around it. The sun is a sphere—but also is a source of intense heat—a ball or a disc is rather a dull object without this sense of something emanating from it." The sun and the moon are also rather dull objects without the sense of something—or everything—being suspended between them, as if on invisible, connecting wires. That's Calder's cosmos: a place of delicate, perfect balance. There may be volcanoes, but there are not eruptions; the sun may be intensely hot, but glaciers are safe. Everything moves, but in a poised dangle. Would Calder see the same universe today?

Well, he probably would. Calder was notoriously imperturbable. Time magazine dubbed him "The Merry Modernist." Aside from one outburst, in which he and his wife bought a full-page ad in the New York Times protesting the Vietnam War in 1966—"Reason is not treason," it read—Calder's output is surprisingly innocent of the turbulent years during which he lived, from 1898 to 1976. By all accounts he was good-natured—a certain type of guy's guy (the type with lots of stuff in his pockets and a lifelong inclination to work with his hands) and a certain type of American's American (acquainted with Europe but impervious to its superiority complex). His obituary in the Times described a big party for him just before his death, at which point he was wildly popular, though critics have always questioned his seriousness. "He loved [the party], and we loved him, and we shall go on doing it for ever and ever," the obit ended with a crash, the writer, John Russell, virtually laid out and weeping. (Russell also proclaimed that Calder's marriage to Louisa James, great-niece of William and Henry James, "has a high place in the annals of monogamy.")

To this day, there's always a Calder show somewhere. A cynical observer might say it's because of the promotional prowess of Calder's grandson, who established the tightly controlling Calder Foundation (images and even descriptions of the art are policed), but that would be overstating the case. Calder's art is popular for a bizarrely simple (almost tautological) reason: It has universal appeal to humans, beyond questions of taste. He invented the mobile. The entire form. Calder is the reason babies have mobiles in their cribs. (Marcel Duchamp is the one who invented the term, in 1936, to describe Calder's moving sculptures.)

On one hand, Calder reduces us all to hypnotized babies. On the other hand, watching certain constellations of tiny, perfectly balanced, colored abstract shapes cast dazzling, spinning shadows on the wall is simply a neurologic holiday. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote, "Mobiles have no meaning. They make you think of nothing but themselves. They are; that is all."

Seattle has reason to consider Calder carefully—he's supposed to mean something to us. In 2000, two Seattle collectors named Jon and Mary Shirley paid more than $10 million to bring his 39-foot red Eagle here. (The sculpture was made in 1971 for a bank plaza in Fort Worth; when the bank building was sold, the sculpture was marooned until the Shirleys bought it.) The Eagle is one of Calder's "stabiles," another term given to Calder's work by another artist, this time Jean Arp, describing Calder's grounded sculptures as the opposite of his "mobiles."

The huge stabiles do not have the same basic charms as the mobiles. Eagle stands overlooking the water and mountains, on the promontory at the northern end of downtown, appearing to face head-on the particularly majestic scale of the Seattle environment, as if the artist had put the creature there for just that purpose. Of course the truth is that Seattle nourishes Eagle as much as (even more than?) the other way around. In addition to the natural associations, its airplanelike construction, with rows of visible rivets, is made poetic by Seattle's (increasingly melancholy) history as Boeing-town. Eagle practically aches toward the other end of downtown, where port cranes loom like lost lovers.

And now we can officially say: Eagle, schmeagle. The rest of the Calders the Shirleys have collected are on display for the first time at Seattle Art Museum in an exhibition called Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act, which includes mobiles, maquettes, wire sculptures, jewelry, photographs, and video from all periods of the sculptor's long career. With the exception of one sculpture (owned by Seattle collector Barney Ebsworth) and one painting (and Calder is not a very good painter), all of the show's objects by Calder are owned by the Shirleys and eventually will be given to SAM. (Will the Ebsworth work, the playful sitting Hen, come to SAM? "We can't confirm that at this time," curator Michael Darling wrote.) Videos and photographs by other artists picturing Calder working or performing his famous wire circus fatten up the show nicely, adding a dimension of life that would otherwise be sorely lacking, since only one of Calder's meant-to-move sculptures is physically moving in the galleries (it has fans on it from all sides). People can be seen trying to subtly wave their arms to create a breeze or quietly blowing in the direction of the hanging objects, hoping the guards don't notice.

That is the essence of Calder, not the earthbound Eagle, which is beamed into the galleries via live video feed, its stature appropriately diminished. No, the real star among the Calders that live in Seattle is Bougainvillier (Bougainvillea), from 1947, an exquisitely delicate standing mobile with a generous, curved black base ringed by a black sphere stretching up to a red cantilever that sprouts leggy branches and tiny white blossoms. It's like a garden nymph from outer space. The way it's put together—part industrial tidiness, part jewelry—is not too showy or cute, and the shapes feel specific but abstract (neither Miró-redux nor stock-surrealism, both of which occasionally plague Calder's work).

Unfortunately, Bougainvillier is mounted on giant white slabs like a sardine in a tomb. The presentation of the entire show has this unpleasant stagy quality. Everything is cordoned off and separated, in vitrines or on pedestals or by lines drawn on the floors, in contrast to historical photographs of jangling roomsful of Calders—or Herbert Matter's cinematic photographs of Calder's teeming studio. SAM is being overly protective, and the strictly formal interpretations in the wall labels give the same dulling, hands-off impression.

Past the staginess and inconsistency—and with the puffed-up, monumental Eagle finally, thankfully to the side—we can distill this exhibition (and this collection) down to a handful of exemplary works, including Bougainvillier, some tiny stabiles (sculptures in their own right, not maquettes), three enchanting hanging mobiles from the 1940s (one with a chunk of wood, one meant to make a sound), bits of jewelry, and the 1961 video of Calder performing his wire circus. The beloved circus performers—a stripping scarecrow, a unicycling dinosaur, a leopard-print-sashed weight lifter—are held by the Whitney Museum of American Art; another major collection of Calders resides at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which organized a major retrospective in 1998. The Shirley collection can't compete with any of these landmarks, but it provides enough material (especially augmented here) to make a fair assessment of Calder. To me, still, he is reticent. I find myself unable to get at the heart of his lightness of being. I just stand with everyone else, flapping my arms. recommended