How Alexander Calder’s Wee Circus Was Brought Back to Life

Photo: © 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Last Friday, American artist Alexander Calder’s beloved Circus reemerged at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Made between 1926 and 1931, it had been falling apart and had been in storage. But now it’s back in all of its wee glory. In a darkened gallery space, a cowboy made of scrappy pieces of leather and wood wrangles a wire horse; a prima donna in a cheap, pink silk dress raises one thin metal arm as if singing; a wire acrobat is poised to flip; and off to the left is the ringmaster with a big black top hat and a little cork face, his arms swung open to announce the show. Even now, the tiny figures of the circus will remain static, waiting for their commands: Calder used to perform the piece by moving the figures with strings, wires, and pulleys. But their creator and manipulator is gone, but they remain, too delicate for anybody else to dare animate.

On a June afternoon three weeks earlier, Calder’s cowboy and acrobat were still backstage — in the Conservation Room at the Whitney, on the museum’s sixth floor. The room, with its big windows, high ceilings, and pale-wood, flat file drawers feels like a cross between a prosperous artist’s studio and a scientist’s lab. I’m greeted by Eleonora Nagy, conservator of three-dimensional art, who wears a dark denim workman’s jacket and bright teal protective gloves — which she doesn’t remove for most of our meeting — and who moves through the space with the precision of a master technician.

Nagy is the ringmaster of the restoration of Calder’s Circus, along with archivist Anita Duquette and art historian Joan Simon, who have worked for the past six years to restore the piece. Though the pieces of the Circus had been periodically touched up, this major restoration began after Nagy and her team received a grant from the Getty Conservation Institute in 2008. Overseen by Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, associate director for conservation and research at the Whitney, the team researched the history of Calder’s Circus extensively, studying videos of Calder performing the Circus, and even meeting with acrobats to learn about the physical motions that inspired Calder’s miniature performers. “That’s about as close as one can get to the circus,” Mancusi-Ungaro says.

Nagy leads me across the conservation room to a counter, where what appears to be a tissue blotted with pink lipstick rests on a soft quilted pad. Upon closer examination, the lipstick blot is actually a piece of very faded, very worn pink silk. “This is the only piece of fabric which really literally disintegrated,” Nagy says. “This was one of the dresses, and this is the only piece with fabric which we really had to replace on the Circus.” In order to restore the prima donna’s dress, Nagy and her team worked with the Whitney textile conservator Gina Bianco to find the exact silk in the original dress color, as well as thread identical to the thread Calder used to sew the piece back on. “We bought the exact thread, and then you really have to repeat the stitch — even the size of the stitch, even the manner of the stitch, everything,” Nagy says. “We cannot improve things.”

Across the room, a few of the circus characters sit in cream storage boxes, amply supported by precisely cut foam. Each box has blocky handwritten notes in all caps at the bottom. On the acrobat’s box: “Please note: Leather feet are fragile + sensitive to humidity.” The acrobat himself is standing upright, tilting back onto a piece of supportive foam, his face tilted slightly to the left. And on the cowboy’s box: “Please note: This contains a number of brittle leather elements. Please be careful not to touch scalp as it may be fragile.” Nagy points out bits of leather that have fallen to the bottom of the box. “Some materials tend to break down, even in the dark, even in perfectly stabilized storage conditions,” she says.

To understand why exactly the leather was deteriorating, Nagy sent a sample to be tested at a conservation science center in England that specializes in the material. “What we came up with is that this is a very, very poor-quality tanning leather,” Nagy says. “There was a technique in the early 1900s, which was developed as a quick and cheap tanning process, and as a result the leather was very cheap — it was very popular because it was easily available and cheap, so basically Calder bought that.” To reinforce some of the remaining pieces of leather on the figures, Nagy used a process called “consolidation,” which involves filling the pores of the leather with a very thin liquid adhesive that reinforces the attachment. “You will not see anything on the surface, but you introduce some kind of added strength which was not there before,” she says.

Nagy lifts the cowboy’s silk scarf, and underneath a vibrant, deep green shade is revealed. The once-brilliant colors are essential to understanding the piece, Nagy explains. “Calder wrote about this — or at least mentioned it in several interviews and other things — that the circus was really vivid and that the intense color effect was a very important part of the circus for him.” To revive the color of the piece, the conservators consulted with Swedish scientist Jacob Thomas, whom Nagy refers to as a “fading science expert,” to assess how much the colors of the Circus had faded over time. Using a machine invented by Thomas, they employed 3-D laser imaging and photogrammetry to collect data and then determined the best conditions for displaying the piece without causing further damage.

“It stays faded,” Nagy says. “Nothing happens to it [physically].” What may be the greatest feat in restoring Calder’s Circus is, in effect, an optical illusion. The restored Circus will be displayed in a darkened room — as it was in Calder’s original performances — under a new lighting system invented by the German-Italian firm OSRAM Clay Paky that has a wide and precise color temperature range, which allows the piece to be shown under lower light levels, while still enhancing the vividness of the objects. It is an “optical adjustment,” Nagy says. The lighting system “doesn’t do any damage to the piece, but at the same time we can very much improve the perception and the understanding of the piece, and we can bring back something that is physically lost already, but it gives you a better idea of what it was.”

When I ask Nagy if she finds it frustrating that the piece, which she has spent years restoring, will inevitably still disintegrate, Nagy pauses before answering. “I can only answer that from a conservator’s point of view,” she says. “If you think of a person — a newborn is wonderful, but regardless of how happy you are about the newborn, the newborn will age every single day, and the only thing you can do is slow this aging process and make sure that it happens in a dignified — and as ideal as possible — way because that person inevitably will die no matter what. So basically, that’s a good comparison to what conservator’s are aiming for. I cannot make it last forever. What I can do with preventative conservation and direct intervention, I can slow that process.”

In other words: The show must go on.

How Alexander Calder’s Wee Circus Was Brought Back to Life