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Between 1926 and 1931, Calder made his famed Circus from wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps, and would stage live performances in New York art galleries and Upper East Side parlours.

Sheldan Collins/Whitney Museum of American Art, 2007

The current Alexander Calder exhibition at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario is about as light-hearted an affair as you can imagine. Spend a few moments in the projection area where Jean Painlevé's 1953 film of the Calder Circus is on view - a loving document of Calder's miniature, handmade replica of a circus complete with a sword-swallower, a tamed lion, a dancing elephant and trapeze artists made from wire, cloth, rubber hoses, string, bits of wood and other found objects - and you will see young and old, rich and poor, male and female united in a common experience of Calder's surprising, comic and metamorphic vision. Everybody's smiling.

This might lead one to assume, as many have done, that Calder is a lightweight, art-historically speaking. But the Whitney Museum of American Art's Joan Simon and Brigitte Leal of the Centre Pompidou - the curators of Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933- would argue with that assertion. Levity and shallowness are not the same. Calder is serious play.

Best known for the creation of the mobile (a term coined by Marcel Duchamp, a friend of the artist), Calder started his working life as a mechanical engineer, mastering the laws of physics that would animate many of his sculptures to come. Defecting from engineering, he sought work as a commercial illustrator, working for many of the major periodicals in New York and, in his free time, sketching animals in the Bronx and Central Park zoos. Both of Calder's parents were artists, but he was 28 before he took the plunge into fine art, heading to Paris to immerse himself in the leading avant garde movements of the day. There, he floated between Surrealist circles (where he was befriended by Duchamp, Man Ray, and Joan Miro) and members of the loose-knit group Abstraction-Création (Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Jean Arp), crisscrossing the Atlantic on frequent trips and developing the pivotal body of work that this exhibition captures.

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"Calder has been so present that the reasons for his importance have been overlooked," says Simon. "Everybody knows what a mobile is. To have created a whole mode of work - that's extraordinary. But the question that came before the mobiles, the question that's with him from the start, is: How do you give life to an object?"

Calder's fascination with this question resonates in his miraculous early animal studies fashioned from detritus found in daily life or in the studio. A wooden clothes peg becomes the head of a dog. A piece of metal is bent to take on the form of an elephant. Like Picasso's bull's head made from a bicycle seat and inverted handlebars (made nearly 20 years later), the transformations are astonishing, each one an exercise in free-form perception, ridded of cliché.

It's in Calder's Circus , though, that his inventiveness reaches full blossom. Made between 1926 and 1931, it included some 200 objects - 69 of which were animals and human figures - which he transported from venue to venue in five battered valises and performed with before live audiences in art galleries, artistic salons and the Upper East Side parlours of moneyed New York patrons. Appearing in the work pants and paint-spattered boots of a hobo, Calder was all the rage.

Look at the Circus carefully, though, and you can discern the subversion beneath the sideshow. Here, as in his ingenious bent-wire portrait sculptures, the artist highlights the pomposity of authority, making figures of fun of the circus trainers who crack their whips self-importantly. Clearly, Calder's sympathies lie with the four-legged beasts - the magnificent roaring lion, which jauntily defecates on stage, or the bashful show-pony, patiently labouring in the ring. The female body finds unruly expression in the figure of Fanni the Belly Dancer, who swivels and snaps her hips with near-dislocating verve. (Josephine Baker was one of his favourite wire portrait subjects.) In this liveliness, he expresses his allegiance.

Says Simon: "The circus has inherent in it the contrast between risk and safety, between tension and release, between sadness and joy. It has all of the extremes of life, in exaggerated form," serving, too, as a metaphor for the duress of modern urban life. In Calder's Circus , these dialectics are enacted by a very distinct cast of human characters, and by animals whose idiosyncratic styles of movement are precisely captured by Calder's mechanisms. In Painlevé's film, Calder's little white dog scurries on its wobbly hind legs, eliciting a gasp of pleasure. An elephant made from blocks of wood, rough cloth patches and plastic tubing carries all the gravity and deliberation of the beast itself, as rough as the Merz assemblages by Kurt Schwitters that he so admired. Look at Calder's creations here and you discover a precursor to contemporary artists like Switzerland's Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Vancouver's Geoffrey Farmer and Toronto's Kristin Horton - all of them connoisseurs of chaos who can make the humblest materials sing.

With Calder, who died in 1976, motion and gesture are the constants. Not surprising, the abstract sculptures which emerge following his fateful 1930 encounter with Mondrian display a kindred buoyancy and snappy vitality that we have already come to love in the earlier, figurative work. Pluto had been discovered in 1930, and astronomy was a hot topic, so in a way these abstract works are rooted in representation. But they are also infused with the utopian spirit of Russian Constructivism, expressing a kind of weightless rapture about the future. Some of these sculptures have moving parts, operated by hand or through electrification. When we get to Calder's mobile Object with Red Disks (1931) - a sprightly assembly of five red discs orbiting a slender steel spine, and ballasted by spheres of black and white - we can recognize it as the natural, seemingly effortless culmination of everything that has come before.

Here, the trapeze artists of the Paris years are transubstantiated into pure form, colour and line. Four years earlier, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic. Man was airborne. Now art was too.

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Alexander Calder: The Paris Years; 1926 to 1933 continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until Jan. 10.

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