She hangs dark, immense and pocked with holes in a white room, a beast of many parts languidly revolving in the air. Part leaf, part lever, all magisterial grace, Black Widow is a quintessential Calder mobile — one of the signature inventions of the extraordinary twentieth-century artist-engineer.
This tremendous piece, three and a half metres long, is the finale to Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture at London’s Tate Modern, a show that maps the evolution of Calder’s thought and practice on a route that is itself like the slow turn of a mobile. I spiralled through rooms mesmerised by manifestations of the propulsive, experimental drive of the man. Calder was not just a pioneer of kinetic sculpture and one of the first to use industrial materials other than pigments, such as steel. His early wire sculptures are scribbles in metal, yet miraculously evoke heft through mere line. And his fascination with sound and performance led to probings of chance and uncertainty that influenced avant-garde US composers such as Earle Brown and John Cage.
Astrophysics also exerted a singular pull on the artist. Fired by the sight, from shipboard, of a serendipitous equilibrium — a setting Sun and rising Moon on opposite horizons — Calder would declare years later that the “underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe”, the “idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities”. Calder was to investigate such momentous problems of motion and relationship in mobiles both wind-driven and motorised, such as A Universe (1934), in which two spheres go through different 40-minute cycles. (Einstein reportedly watched them from start to finish while viewing the piece in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)
As the Tate show makes clear, Calder’s own balancing act — one foot in science, one in art — arose from both chance and deliberation. Born into a family of artists and sculptors, he decided at 17 to study descriptive geometry and applied kinetics at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He then pursued painting at New York’s seminal Art Students League in the early 1920s and, after experimenting with metal sculpture, set off in 1926 for the cultural crucible of Paris.
Here he began to explore the suggestion of movement in the fluidity of works in wire such as Hercules and the Lion (1928). The star of this period, however, is the Cirque Calder, a troupe of miniature acrobats and animals sculpted in wire, wood, cork, fabric and other materials and used for live-action shows that enthralled the likes of Joan Miró and Piet Mondrian. While the ingenious palette of materials may owe something to the Constructivism of Russian-born artist Naum Gabo, the wit and dogged study of the physics of moving objects are Calder’s own. A 45-minute film of him putting his performers through their paces, as fiercely concentrated as a four-year-old with a train set, is a major delight of this show.
And it’s one among many. We can, for instance, trace the gestation of Calder’s mobiles from his visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930, where he wondered why the Dutch painter didn’t set the cardboard rectangles he used to aid composition oscillating. Mondrian was dubious; Calder felt “like the baby being slapped to make its lungs start working”.
He began creating free-standing wire constructions hung with geometric forms in white, black and Mondrian-esque primaries, such as Small Feathers (1931). He played with mechanised motion in works like Black Frame (1934). And, distributing force through precise arrangements of levers and their fulcrums, he created suspended mobiles — suggesting orbiting planets, snowstorms, schools of fish, flotillas of cloud or, as some have noted, animated Mirós. He became an engineer of air, a definer of space.
Around the same time, Calder’s interest in the aural grew. The elements of his sculptures, he noted, were “weight, form, size, colour, motion and then you have noise”. Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/3) is an open-ended experiment in which two suspended coloured balls are arranged so that one hits a collection of bottles, a box, a can and a gong. Visitors would reorganise these to create randomised ‘compositions’.
Such investigations of ‘open form’ reached a new pitch in the 1940s. Calder fitted large mobiles such as Triple Gong (1948) with beaters and differently pitched brass gongs to create evocative music as they shifted in air, not unlike exquisitely calibrated windchimes. Later still, he collaborated with Earle Brown on Calder Piece, a “sonic animation” of Calder’s mobile Chef d’Orchestre, which by moving ‘conducts’ a percussion ensemble.
As the show reveals, Calder’s boldness in testing possibilities extended to other materials and contexts. Mercury Fountain, created for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris is one; there were also theatrical sets, the Water Ballet, an ‘acoustical ceiling’ in Caracas — and more.
Scientifically inspired art of the twentieth century might seem the usual seepage of ideas across disciplinary boundaries. Painters such as the Dadaist Max Ernst and muralist Diego Rivera were deeply influenced by developments in mathematics and particle physics, for instance. Sculptors, however, did not just depict; they embodied. Calder shaped the stuff of physics into a biomorphic aesthetic to rival Barbara Hepworth’s. And like Hepworth and her insistent use of voids in solid form, he found a way to marry the immateriality of air with a significant tonnage of standing and hanging metal.
This reassessment of an artist who created 22,000 works over an unstoppable career was a journey of discovery for me. As a child of thoroughly modernist artists, I early on absorbed (and loved) many of Calder’s works. But I found myself entranced, and educated, all over again — and seething with questions. I’d give a hell of a lot to know, for instance, what was going through Einstein’s mind as he gazed at Calder’s A Universe.
Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture runs at Tate Modern, London, through 3 April 2016. The quotes from Calder in this piece are from the show’s programme notes.
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