The danger of presenting two artists in a single show is that the work of one can overwhelm the other. This is just what happens in “Calder Miro,” at the Phillips Collection, where the sculptures of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) outshine the paintings of Joan Miro (1893-1983).
The show comprises more than 100 paintings, sculptures, collages and drawings by the two artists, who sustained a friendship that lasted from the 1920s in Paris, through the 1930s in Spain, to the New York of the 1950s.
Walking through the exhibit, my gaze fell most often on the linear gyrations in Mr. Calder’s early circuses and toys, witty wire portraits, motorized abstract constructions, early mobile and stabile combinations and, finally, the later stabiles. Mr. Miro’s imaginary monsters and grotesque figures are, like the Calders, linear and playful, but not as attention grabbing.
It was initially in the early 1930s, during a short-lived rejection of painting, that Mr. Miro focused on sculpture, as the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 2002 exhibit “Shape of Color: Joan Miro’s Painted Sculpture” illustrated. The 1970s saw the Catalan artist returning to sculpture with colorful, mischievous and often shocking figures.
As a young expatriate American artist living in Paris, Mr. Calder famously visited Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930. He liked the painter’s geometric abstractions, but he wanted to take the work further: He wanted to put the shapes in motion.
By taking images like Mondrian’s off their supports, be they walls or floors, and putting them into motion, the sculptor invented the mobile, a signature form of the 20th century.
It was a hard act for Mr. Miro to follow, but he transferred the American’s art of line and movement into his own form of expression.
If Mr. Calder emerges as the clear star of this joint show, it is in part because its curators — the Phillips’ senior curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner and guest curator Oliver Wick of the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel — seem to have chosen better examples of his work than of Mr. Miro’s. Barcelona’s noteworthy Fundacio Joan Miro (Joan Miro Foundation) is home to far more exciting Miros than those presented here.
The only Miros here that can be called great are the iconic “Carnival of Harlequin” (1924-1925), his surrealist “Painting (Circus Horse)” (1927), the hurtling right-to-left creatures of “Woman Haunted by the Passage of the Bird-Dragonfly Omen of Good News” (1938), the dream-like white-scumbled-over-blue “Painting (Man with Pipe)” (1925) and his commissioned and never-before-traveled “Mural Painting for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati” (1947).
Mrs. Turner says they set up the exhibit in a series of “little vignettes” that demonstrate the artists’ exchanges over the course of their long friendship. For example, the Phillips’ central gallery of the second floor of the newly renovated Goh Annex trumpets the fun, sardonic jokes and love of animals and found objects — most often, metal wire — of both these often whimsical artists.
The room is a special treat, as Mr. Calder’s 1920s toys and circuses are almost never loaned by their home institutions. Mr. Calder’s bent wire “Two Acrobats,” “Arching Man” and “Circus Scene” seem to reach for the skies, while the figures of even such an inventive Miro painting as “Carnival of Harlequin” are more earthbound.
As the exhibit progresses through several sections called “Ballet Mecanique,” “Performing Portraits,” “Sensation of the Universe,” “Like Living Miros” and “War Years and Constellations,” it’s obvious that both artists are best when working with large, simplified forms.
Both made a series of constellations in the 1940s during World War II. Although the artists were separated by the war, those that Mr. Miro created in Europe were similar to those Mr. Calder made in Connecticut. Both series lacked visual dynamics, and are fussy and detailed. They could have been left out of the show.
Mr. Miro’s wall-sized 1947 “Mural Painting for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati” shows the advantages of simplification. Another visually taut sculpture is Mr. Calder’s early, but strangely prophetic, “Cello on a Spindle” (1936).
But nothing in the exhibit beats Mr. Calder’s later revolving, ceiling-hung and shadows-rich mobiles. Large or small, their dance-like rhythms and appropriation of whole rooms with their shadows make them delightful, unparalleled signposts in the history of modernism.
WHAT: “Calder Miro”
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays, and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays
TICKETS: $13 adults, $11 students and seniors, free for Phillips’ members and children under 19. Weekend rates are $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors Call 800/551-SEAT or www.ticketmaster.com.
INFORMATION: Call 202/387-2151 or visit online at phillipscollection.org