"Circus" by Alexander Calder.

“Fundamentally antagonistic” is an appropriate phrase to use when describing the works of John Sloan and Alexander Calder, two celebrated artists who set benchmarks during the first 75 years of the last century.

Over the first half of the century, Sloan incorporated New York City’s energy with social commentary through his oils, drawings and prints. As a Sloan protégé, Calder learned to create highly detailed, technically exacting and subtly nuanced oils, prints and works on paper. Sloan’s influence was reflected in Calder’s early works. However, Calder did not imitate his teacher.

Shortly after graduating from art school, Calder—who had previously earned a mechanical-engineering degree—reinvented himself, in the process redefining sculpture. Sometime in the early 1930s, a Calder piece at a gallery exhibition announced his unique and highly personal aesthetic: One avant garde artist called it “mobile.”

About five years later, the artist re-branded himself yet again, and further broadened the definition of sculpture. Calder coined the word “stabile” when asked to define it.

Calder’s mobiles and stabiles demonstrated his unique ability to create unexpected artistic synergies. More specifically, he produced art that reflected his ability to leverage his creative right brain (art degree) concurrent with his analytic left brain (engineering degree).

While Calder is best known for the mobile and stabile, Calder’s creative output included both two-dimensional (paintings, fine art prints, works on paper, drawings) and three-dimensional works until his death in 1976. Often, there appears to be a “conversation” between works on paper and sculptures. In other words, a work on paper may be the basis for a sculpture, or vice versa.

The fantastic Calder show on display through May 30 at Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert includes a number of stabiles and mobiles. Most are smaller and intimate, making Calder’s language and aesthetic more accessible.

However, the stars of this exhibit are Calder’s prints, drawings and works on paper. The Heather James team wonderfully organized a show that introduces Calder as a visual artist who moves seamlessly between two- and three-dimensional art.

The impact is most pronounced when facing the expansive wall at the back of the gallery. The entire space, from floor to ceiling, is populated with an array of strong Calder prints, drawings and gouaches. A first look at the wall can be overpowering. However, if one mentally breaks the wall into smaller groups of Calder’s works, understanding replaces overload. Almost all of Calder’s works on paper and prints do three things: They engage the viewer, require interpretation and are infused with humor and whimsy.

In “Le Petit Rouge” (upper right), a later gouache and ink on paper, the artist paints two four-legged animals: one red, and one blue. While painted clearly, what they are, exactly, is defined by the viewer. A jackal? A dog? Both have claws, not paws, as well as Doberman pinscher-like ears that might also be seen as horns. Lastly, the blue animal sports a grin reminiscent of that of the Cheshire Cat. However, is this grin playful or impish … or perhaps sinister?

Throughout his life, Calder remained fascinated with and inspired by the circus. A large number of his sculptures and works on paper contain circus-related themes, dating back to his years at the Art Students League. In the print “Circus,” the artist effectively synthesizes and encapsulates the energy, complexity and delight Calder found when visiting the big top, all without sacrificing his trademark palette of primary colors, plus black and white.

As expected, the ringmaster, much like the conductor of an orchestra or band, stands front, albeit just left center. Like a conductor, he is dressed in top hat and tails. However, the ringmaster here traded in his baton for a bullwhip. Swirling around the ringmaster is a horse, presented in red and outlined in blue, creating a sense of ongoing motion and flow without seeming forced. A clown in the bottom left foreground appears to be engaging the audience. A trapeze artist, clearly preparing to jump to a new swing, adds to the dynamic.

To reinforce the sense of motion, Calder—by adding two large red circles and a series of 12 broadly printed blue lines—creates the illusion of spotlights moving around the performance area. As in “Le Petit Rouge,” Calder’s horse smiles. There is also an irony: All of the human circus performers show no apparent emotion.

In “The Handstand,” a bronze created in 1944 (below), Calder conveys the sense of whimsy, imagination and fun with which he is associated. In keeping with Calder’s style, the artist leaves the viewer to determine the gender and age of the figure. However, this and another small sculpture, “Cheval II,” created during the same years, appear totally un-Calderesque. In sharp contrast to the simplicity and elegance associated with his mobiles and stabiles, these pieces seem like unfinished, rough first drafts that require significantly more work. They appear heavily influenced by Giacometti, with a roughness unexpected in a Calder work.

The Alexander Calder exhibition is on display through Monday, May 30, at Heather James Fine Art, located at 45188 Portola Ave., in Palm Desert. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 760-346-8926, or visit www.heatherjames.com.