Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture @ Tate Modern

This is a much more fun, exuberant and uplifting exhibition than I expected. Also more varied.

Born in Pennsyslvania in 1898, the son of a sculptor father and artist mother, Calder showed promise in art from an early age but took a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919. During the 1920s he got work sketching for various periodicals including the Police Gazette, for which he sketched the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1926 he moved to Paris to study art and quickly became friends with various masters of Modernism, including  Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp. Apparently, many were first attracted by his model circus in which he got various scale models of performers to put on circus acts, contraptions and wind-up devices with a charming Heath-Robinson air to them.

Much later, in the 1950s, a film was made of Calder recreating these early performances – the full 43 minutes is yours for £22 from the Tate shop.

But at the same time, Calder was also experimenting with larger scale subjects and with mediums and materials. In particular he was systematically exploring the potential of creating figure from wire and room one contains some striking examples of his early experiments. He seems to have leaped completely free of the Western tradition before the exhibition even starts: the earliest samples show him using strong wire to create very evocative three dimensional shapes, outlines, silhouettes:

Flat 2D photos don’t do any justice to their lightness, the way the works are (obviously) completely transparent, yet shaped so accurately and cleverly that they are brilliant evocations of their subjects. Also, many of them were cunningly made to move. At the bottom right of Goldfish you can see a bit of metal sticking out which is actually a handle: turn it and, via a simple cog mechanism, it turns the horizontal wires further up which make the goldfish rotate. Strongly related to the Heath-Robinson mentality of the Calder Circus, it marks an interest in moving sculpture which lasted  his whole career.

Room two is a small one with just one work, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/3), basically two balls suspended from the ceiling on string or twine, and a few boxes and bottles of wine on the floor. You push the heavier ball and it and the other one begin to rotate and move in a series of unpredictable movements, knocking against the objects, creating sounds, thuds and notes.

You can see from this the interest in sound and sculpture, in movement, in abstraction.

Room three goes back a bit to explain Calder’s ongoing fascination with the circus and performers. Quite a large room it contains about 20 examples of his early wire frame versions of the human figure, of wonderful circus performs, intersperesed with amazingly evocative portraits of his friends in the avant-garde, Léger, Varèse, Miro and so on. Both circus performers and portraits are brilliantly done.

Their brightness and (literally) openness, their naivety and cunning, reminded me of the poetry of ee cummings.

Room four tells the story of Calder’s visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian in 1930. At a stroke Calder grasped the meaning and potential of pure abstraction. (As a side note, Calder apparently said to Mondrian, wouldn’t it be great to take his coloured squares and set them in motion; Mondrian was seriously shocked and, apparently, replied: ‘My painting is already fast enough.’ Fast. What a brilliant description of Mondrian’s utterly static images. What an insight into his perception of them.) Suddenly Calder began applying all his figurative and engineering skills to making wire and colour abstract sculptures.

  • Object with red ball The white horizontal rod can be moved up and down. The strings holding the red and black balls can be moved forward or back.
  • Small feathers (1931)
Red and Yellow Vane (1934) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

Red and Yellow Vane (1934) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

In these works you can see the wire bending and twisting technique of the earlier figures redirected into creating abstract objects, coloured with primary colours. Experiments in shape and form, just as countless Modernist painters were experimenting with the same. But what if he combined these abstract designs with his interest in mechanisms, clockwork, rails, cogs and pulleys, which had featured so heavily in his famous circus contraptions?

Room five brings together a collection of shapes cut in metal, coloured black and red and yellow, some on spindly mobile hangers but other consisting of sheets of metal or blocks, all of which have hidden mechanisms to make them move, rotate, corkscrew, up and around, pinging and looping in as many directions as he could devise. Kinetic art.

Disappointingly, all of them are now too fragile to work. Frankly, I’d have expected Tate to have the resources to recreate one or two actual working replicas, most of them were only a couple of feet big. Also,interesting though they may have been when they moved, static they are just assemblages of metal with half-concealed machinery. The exhibition commentary said Calder tired of the limited possibilities of mechanical sculptures. I’d have thought he also realised how limited it was in size.

It was, apparently, in a visit to Calder’s studio in 1930 that notorious modernist Marcel Duchamp described these works as ‘mobiles’. They moved. In 1933 Calder moved back to the States, buying a big farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut with his wife, Louisa.

After the move, Calder became interested in hanging coloured shapes themselves against a coloured background or block. The curators are pleased that Room six brings together a number of these works which have rarely if ever been exhibited before.

White Panel (1936) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

White Panel (1936) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

They have the abstract, vaguely zoomorphic feel of Matisse’s cutouts, and the same bright primary colouring. It is calming to stand in front of them and watch the shapes, suspended by wires from horizontal bars, slowly twisting in the slight ambient air movement in front of more bright colours. Relaxing, interesting – but you know this isn’t yet the full thing, the works he’s famous for.

The narrow Room seven also has an interim feel. It records Calder’s display at the 1937 Pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the International Exposition in Paris. There was a massive photo of Calder standing beside the abstract fountain he created to run with mercury, and in front of Picasso’s Guernica, at its debut.

In 1939 Calder exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. For this he created maquettes for proposed enormous sculptures of abstract shapes which would have moved and animated in choreographed movement. From his earliest Calder circus via the hand-cranked wire figures and the mechanized shapes in room 5, Calder consistently showed interest in sculpture that moves.

Room eight is dedicated to mobiles with the theme of the universe, stars and planets and solar systems. He made a series of Constellations, featuring pieces of painted wood connected by steel rods.

Along one wall are objects which look like astrolabes, globes of wire, with blocks and objects attached. The most commentaried work is Universe. Along circles of wire, two small balls move in different timings thus creating a complex cycle which, apparently took 40 minutes to completely finish.

Calder is quoted numerous times saying how much the notion of moving parts, objects, elements in a sculpture fascinated him. This made it all the more frustrating that all the works in this room, as all the mechanical examples earlier, are completely static. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to create an actually moving version of Universe for us to marvel at.

Interesting though all the previous work has bee, it is only in room nine that you feel you have finally arrived. It is a big room and it is packed with the final, mature version of the classic mobile design – ‘an elegantly balanced network of wires and painted pieces of metal, suspended from the ceiling’ (as the catalogue puts it). The room holds a dozen or more large, abstract, impressive, slowly moving mobiles which create an overwhelming impact.

This is the room to loiter in and slowly walk from one work to the next, savouring their shapes and achievement, for it is fascinating to see these mature mobiles after having followed the evolution of Calder’s work, the development of his thinking, his experiments with all sorts of unconventional sculptures – all to get to this point.

Antennae with Red and Blue Dots (1953) by Alexander Calder. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Antennae with Red and Blue Dots (1953) by Alexander Calder. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Free of the limitations of motors or cranks, therefore free to be as large as the main cable can bear, free to move but in complex and unpredictable interactions. Of about 15 big examples which fill the room, maybe the highlights are:

It’s amazing how completely finished and achieved and right these works feel, slowly slowly rotating and barely spinning in the cool air movements of the gallery. Like Miro he has achieved a completely persuasive language of abstraction, hinting and gesturing towards all kinds of other things and yet entirely self-contained. It feels like a universal language, a language anyone can speak.

Music or the incorporation of sound, as well as movement, had always been an interest of Calder’s. From early abstracts like Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere through various musical collaborations. Much earlier we were shown the large abstract set designs Calder created for a production of Erik Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate. In the 1940s Calder created mobiles incorporating small gongs of different pitches, with small beaters on nearby suspensions so that the movement of air produces random notes. I guess the domesticated version of this is the common wind chime.

The gong works are part of the long interplay Calder had throughout his career with avant-garde composers: remember his wire portrait of Varèse from one of the earlier rooms, and the commentary points out he worked with chorepographer Martha Graham and was part of the circle including experimental composer John Cage, the great proponent of randomness and chance in composition.

Triple Gong (c.1948) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Triple Gong (c.1948) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

In fact, for the exhibition Tate recreated a piece Calder worked on with composer Earle Brown, titled Calder Piece from 1963. The music was designed to incorporate Calder’s mobile piece Chef d’orchestre, and the whole was staged and performed in the Turbine Hall in November 2015.

Room eleven contains one really big specimen, Black Widow, three and a half metres tall, designed to fill the atrium of the Institute of Architects in Sao Paolo. What a journey the exhibition has taken us on from cranky little handmade circus figures in the mid-twenties to monumental sculptures fit to set off official architecture, less than twenty years later.

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1 Comment

  1. I liked the exhibit but, for me, it didn’t leap beyond crafts from a clever/meticulous vendor of mobiles and wire sculptures that one might see in the street. If vendors were allowed monumental sizes that is.

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