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April 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1357


Reviewed by Marina Vaizey



THE AMERICAN SCULPTOR Alexander Calder (1898–1976) was a legend in his own day for his unparalleled inventiveness, high originality and great intelligence. In the 1920s and early 1930s – before the post-War rush of Americans to Paris, often on the GI Bill – he was one of the few transatlantic visual artists (Man Ray was another) to be fully integrated with their European peers, primarily in Paris. In 1931 Léger wrote of Calder: ‘I think of Satie, Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi, Arp – these unchallenged masters of unexpressed and silent beauty. Calder is in the same family. He is 100-percent American. Satie and Duchamp are 100-percent French. And yet, we meet?’1 It was also in 1931 that Duchamp suggested the name ‘mobile’ for Calder’s small and exquisite motorised sculptures. Before that, Calder had visited Mondrian in his studio and had been deeply moved by the fact that in a sense the whole studio was an installation, a painting. As he later wrote: ‘The mobiles started when I went to see Mondrian. I was impressed by several coloured rectangles he had on the wall. Shortly after that I made some mobiles; Mondrian claimed his paintings were faster than my mobiles’.2

Calder – his father was a sculptor, his mother a painter – originally trained as an engineer. He was highly enterprising and energetic, working in a variety of ways until he almost inevitably embraced his vocation as an artist. He attended art schools in both New York and Paris, as well as supporting himself working on transatlantic ships as a sailor, enabling what turned into long-distance commuting between Europe and America. Thus for several substantial ­periods in the 1920s and the early 1930s he was in Paris, as well as travelling elsewhere in Europe. Although by the mid-1930s he and his American wife were already living back in Connecticut, the prime example of his acceptance by his European peers was his contribution, Mercury Fountain (Miró Foundation, Barcelona), to the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World Fair in Paris, at the time of the Civil War when the government was still Republican. The pavilion, designed by José Luis Sert, was also host to Picasso’s Guernica. Calder’s extraordinary piece, a symbol of Republican opposition to Fascism, was the only contribution from a non-Spaniard in the pavilion; in contemporary photographs of Calder’s work Guernica is seen in the background.

There are major stabiles (the stationery sculptures, named by Arp) and mobiles on view in Europe, but the exhibition of about one hundred works in Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture at Tate Modern, London (to 3rd April),3 is the first substantial museum show in London. It is not an inclusive retrospective (just under a third, say, of the works in the 1998 exhibition in New York and Washington) and is concerned almost exclusively with his early wire figures, drawings for his work, wall-panels with moving elements in front of them, and mobiles. There is no jewellery, although some of his earrings moved: Peggy Guggenheim loved wearing his designs. His extraordinary mobiles have been embraced by America: they are so persuasively charming, soothing and beguiling, hypnotic objects for contemplation that need no artificial power for their movement and take up no floor space. The stabiles, not examined in the current show, also provide a ­persuasive reassurance, as their scale is typi­cally attuned to the human dimension and embrace Calder trademarks – many varied angles and apertures and the ability to look through the work.

Calder’s technical ingenuity is much admired, a sense of the art of the possible, which accords so well, perhaps stereotypically, with American optimism. Anything is possible, including perpetual movement dependent – when he learnt to do without the motor – on the gentlest of natural air currents. The sheer hard work involved in finding the correct balance to make the mobiles work while remaining faithful to the aesthetic vision for each piece was colossal; his grandson reports that visits to the studio when Calder was working required absolute silence. Calder’s influence is subtly pervasive; for example, this has been explored in the still-underrated air-moved sculptures by the Midwesterner George Rickey (1907–2002), not to mention the entire notion of introducing the passage of time into static art.

So this anthology at Tate Modern, facilitated by the Calder Foundation run by the artist’s grandson, Alexander S.C. Rower, is a genuine occasion; its concentration on art-as-movement is in fact liberating. It is a kind of visual Garden of Eden, all newly minted, the sexual connotations joyfully beguiling. It is Calder’s gift to have made a lifetime of art that can be appreciated and approached on several levels. This is summed up perfectly in the range of work, dating from c.1926 to 1961.

The beginnings are Calder’s apparently simple, yet extremely complex, portraits in wire, drawing literally in space: circus figures, acrobats, portraits that encapsulate the sense of play, homo ludens, in a serious sense. Calder was captivated by the circus, and made a circus of human and animal figures; it was portable, but because of its height it required five suitcases to move it. With these – Cirque Calder – he would perform all the circus acts, and several films show how wondrous this was. He was to collaborate with and befriend composers and choreographers from John Cage and Virgil Thomson to Martha Graham.

The early work in wire, drawing in space, is remarkably evocative. Twisted pieces of slim metal vividly mimic the flow of a performer’s body, an acrobat (Fig.69), the physicality of an animal or a portrait (among others Miró, Léger, Josephine Baker and the composer Varèse) (see photographs of the works pp.92–135). The sense of a spontaneous doodle is actually the result of precise craftsmanship. The early motorised mobiles are now too fragile to be operated; it begs the question as to whether these static relics can be appreciated as Calder’s work, or whether working replicas would give a better sense of what he intended.

A group of painted abstract wall panels with moving coloured shapes in front of them dating from the 1930s are rarely shown and, while fascinating, they seem more like investigations than fully fledged works of art (see photographs of the works pp.161–71). The two large galleries filled with active mobiles are the dazzling centre of the show. Their movements are almost infinite, each based on a precise balancing act. Some mobiles occupy floor space, as they are suspended from floor supports.

In the 1940s and the 1950s the Connecticut landscape was inspirational. Calders are abstract, but also abstracted. In Snow Flurry I (photograph p.197) one can almost feel the soft patter of ice flakes (Fig.67), while Vertical Foliage (photograph pp.184–85) is a moving cascade of black leaves. Red Sticks (c.1942; photograph p.187; Fig.68), Descending Spines (photograph p.208), Nineteen White Discs (photograph p.209), Antennae with White and Blue Dots (photograph pp.206–07), Gamma (photograph pp.194–95) and several untitled works – these mesmerising marvels are a series of moving shapes continually interacting with each other and with light and shadow in unpredictable and unexpected ways. In the next gallery, Black Widow (photograph p.199), which the artist gave to the Institute of Architects in São Paulo, is a handsome summary of many of his concerns. His vocabulary of three-dimensional abstraction was nourished by his acute observation, and reminds us that everything is always in flux. Calder has been so embedded – think of mobiles to hang in babies’ nurseries – that it is all too easy to take what he did for granted. This exhibition reminds us that beyond his works’ charm, his vision refines and sharpens ours. The contradictions apparent in his work – spectacle and chaos, as in his attachment to theatre, dance and the circus, and serenity and calm, as in the sense of watching clouds pass over us, framed in a sunlit sky – and their imaginative resolutions have a universal appeal beyond words.

1     The quotation is from the very informative website of the Calder Foundation: see
2     Interview with Katharine Kuh in The Artist’s Voice, New York and Evanston 1962, frequently quoted, e.g. in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Alexander Calder 1898–1976, Washington (National Gallery of Art) 1998; the current catalogue; the Foundation website.
3     Catalogue: Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture. Edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume and Anne Coxon, with additional contributions by Penelope Curtis, Marko Daniel, Thomas Fichter, Sérgio Martins, Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Alexander S.C. Rower and Alex Taylor. 224 pp. incl. 200 col. ills. (Tate Publishing, ­London, 2015), £35 (HB). ISBN 978–1849–763–967. £24.99 (PB). ISBN 9781–8497–63448. There is a chronological list of each exhibited work with information only as to date, material and current ownership. The well-documented chronology held by the Foundation is reproduced and there is an extensive bibliography; an even more extensive bibliography is available on the Foundation’s website.