The working arrangement for “Calder: Constellations”—an elegant, refined, and conscientious presentation of Alexander Calder sculptures at Pace Gallery on East 57th Street in New York—took shape after four bottles of tequila at a basement karaoke fete. Marc Glimcher, Pace’s president, was throwing a birthday party for his wife, Fairfax Dorn (herself a founder of the arts enterprise Ballroom Marfa), and spirts were high. Attendees were tasked with reciting a poem or singing a song for the guest of honor, and Annabelle Selldorf, an architect whose sensuous minimalist aesthetic has come to mark much of the art world, leaned into a musical number in line with her Teutonic heritage.
“Annabelle does Marlene Dietrich, some German song, and it was unbelievable,” Glimcher recalled. “I’m sitting next to Sandy”—Calder’s grandson Alexander Rower, who, like his late grandfather, goes by “Sandy”—“and we’re all in love with Annabelle, so I say, ‘You should design our show!’ She said, ‘Huh?’ ”
Selldorf remembered it a little bit differently. “I would say that four bottles of tequila is a mild exaggeration: it probably was three,” she said, with a laugh. “But you could say tequila played a role evidenced by my singing, which I don’t do all the time.”
However earthy the origin story, the exhibition itself—part of a two-stage show titled “Constellations” that conjoins related work by Calder and Joan Miró, the latter on view at Acquavella Galleries on the Upper East Side—took on an otherworldly aspect. It was not the first time Selldorf set her sights on exhibition design: since 2009, she has laid out numerous shows for Gagosian Gallery (Picasso, Monet, Rauschenberg, Fontana, Bacon, et al.) as well as Jean Tinguely at Gladstone Gallery, the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney Museum, and “Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka” at the Corning Museum of Glass, among others. But “Constellations” offered a chance to engage the work of an artist who had long entertained her interest. Asked if Calder held a special place in her pantheon, Selldorf said, “How can Calder not?”
The striking visual presentation at Pace’s Midtown location begins with something hidden from view: the gallery’s iconic spiral staircase, which has twisted upward near the entryway for decades. For Calder, Selldorf encased it in walls. “Her rationale for everything is that she knows that it’s the right thing to do,” Glimcher said of a decision that altered the surroundings from the start.
Selldorf said it seemed like a natural action to take. “We wanted to calm the space down because there’s already so much movement [in the artworks],” she said. “For us, it’s always the thought that you want to create a tranquil environment so you can really focus and not think about other things.” Plus: “We gained all this extra wall space, which we needed.”
But not just wall space. “We needed to create rooms, not just walls, which I’ve never been able to do as successfully as she has done,” Glimcher said.
The sculptures in the show were made by Calder between 1942 and 1950 and, like a resonant series of paintings on paper by his close friend and compatriot Miró, aspire to a sort of cosmological state. Bringing all the works together (36 pieces by Calder plus 22 by Miró) from different collections was a major undertaking that involved lots of near misses and persistent goading by both galleries involved. “It was a bit of a swindle,” Glimcher said of truth-stretching claims by both Pace and Acquavella that the other already had all its respective works secure—thus upping the pressure on holdouts not yet sold on the idea of loaning such fragile and fleeting works.
Once assembled, matters of display were no less complex. “This is the hardest assignment you can have: how to put these guys in a room and keep them safe and follow the extremely complicated rules,” Glimcher said. Different museums and private collectors had their own particular dictates regarding lighting levels, how close a viewer can stand, whether protective glass is required as a boundary, and other considerations.
Then there is the ethereality of the art. “It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life—I’ve been well-trained by my father,” Glimcher said of learning the art of display from Arne Glimcher, who founded Pace Gallery in 1960. “But when you look at the pictures of them lined up and wonder how to install, it’s kind of a little panic. They are so light, and, like in any Calder sculpture, the air and space around them is an integral piece of the work.”
“When doing an exhibition design, you start with pictures and dimensions and it becomes very matter-of-fact: this will go here, we need more room there, what’s the date, and so on,” Selldorf said. “You create systems or categories that allow you to think about how it all hangs together. But that is pretty much where the rational stops.”
Especially with Calder. “Whenever you see Calder, you become so entranced with every piece,” she added. “So making them speak to one another and making sure there’s not too much is an interesting process.”
Maybe her favorite area of the exhibition, Selldorf said, is the east wall of the gallery, the site of a sort of solo show for a 1943 piece titled Constellation. (Many of the works share the same title, with some minor variations including Black Constellation and Vertical Constellation with Yellow Bone.)
“There’s only one piece [on the east wall], but it’s complemented by the hanging pieces that are in front of it,” Selldorf said of works suspended from up high and floating in the middle of the room. “All of Calder’s work is really about engaging space and our response was to do just that, so that there is kind of a rhythm and a cadence. The wall that has a single piece on it is complemented by hanging pieces that are over a platform in front. They all speak to one another, but they also have their separate identity that doesn’t interfere with the others.”
The platform in the middle doubles as a showy stage and an impediment—and serves as a sort of engine. “It makes you go around so you discover different points of view,” Selldorf said.
Among the most unusual choices in the show—which runs through June 30—is the range of heights at which works are displayed, some much higher than would measure within the realm of convention. “The steeper the angle of the elements, the higher they are,” Glimcher said. “Calder is moving your head around. And when people are really great installers, like Annabelle, they know how much they can populate your peripheral vision and how much they can move your body and your head through the space.”
Asked about the heights, Selldorf said, “What’s nice about them is you can see them from a distance, and when you light them they case these beautiful shadows. If you hang them lower, that’s harder to achieve.”
So does thinking about matters of exhibition design inform or compare to thinking about scaled-up notions of architecture?
“Working with art is always inspiring,” Selldorf said, “and when working with Calder—what’s the right way to say this?—it strikes me how incredibly powerful a small, seemingly playful work of art can be for an entire space. To work with this sort of delicate, light, moving, seemingly coincidental quality is just a beautiful challenge. You don’t want to be heavy next to it, if that makes any sense.”