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Alexander Calder at Tate Modern – a New Modernity for Mobiles

December 22, 2015

ArtsSculpture | by Harry Seymour


Alexander Calder (1898 - 1976), Vertical Foliage 1941, Sheet metal, wire, and paint. 1359 x 1676 mm, Calder Foundation, New York, © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976), Vertical Foliage 1941, Sheet metal, wire, and paint. 1359 x 1676 mm, Calder Foundation, New York, © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was one of the truly ground-breaking artists of the 20th century and, as a pioneer of kinetic sculpture, played an essential role in shaping the history of modernism. Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture brings together approximately 100 works to reveal how Calder turned sculpture from a static object into a continually changing work to be experienced in real time.

Alexander Calder initially trained as an engineer before attending painting courses at the Arts Students League in New York. He travelled to Paris in the 1920s where he developed his wire sculptures and by 1931 had invented the mobile, a term first coined by Marcel Duchamp to describe Calder’s motorised objects. The exhibition traces the evolution of his distinct vocabulary – from his initial years captivating the artistic bohemia of inter-war Paris, to his later life spent between the towns of Roxbury in Connecticut and Saché in France.

Alexander Calder (1898 - 1976)Fernand Léger c.1930 Wire, 420 x 380 mm, Private collection © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976)Fernand Léger c.1930 Wire, 420 x 380 mm, Private collection © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London

The exhibition also features the figurative wire portraits Calder created of other artists including Joan Miró 1930 and Fernand Léger c.1930, alongside depictions of characters related to the circus, the cabaret and other mass spectacles of popular entertainment, including Two Acrobats 1929, The Brass Family 1929 and Aztec Josephine Baker c.1929. Following a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian in 1930, where he was impressed with the environment-as-installation, Calder created abstract, three-dimensional, kinetic forms and suspended vividly coloured shapes in front of panels or within frames hung on the wall. Red Panel 1936, White Panel 1936 and Snake and the Cross 1936 exemplify the artist’s continuous experimentation with forms in space and the potential for movement to inspire new sculptural possibilities. They are shown together with a selection of other panels and open frames for the first time, illustrating this important moment in Calder’s development.

The exhibition includes a selection of his most significant motorised mobiles. Black Frame 1934 and A Universe 1934 reveal the ways in which Calder made use of his training as an engineer and his fascination with the dynamism of the cosmos. By 1932, Calder’s suspended sculptures would begin to move without motors, animated by just the lightest of air currents. In Snow Flurry I 1948, Calder demonstrates his masterful expertise in constructing large-scale mobiles whose equilibrium and reduced palette awards them their sublime quality.

Calder reinvented the possibilities of sculpture in parallel with avant-garde developments in theatre and dance. He incorporated elements of choreography and sound to fundamentally change the principles of traditional sculpture, creating mobiles which chime and resonate such as Red Gongs 1950, Streetcar 1951 and Triple Gong 1951. The exhibition closes with Calder’s large scale mobile Black Widow c.1948, shown for the first time ever outside Brazil, demonstrating how his art in motion turned global after WWII and came to serve as a visual metaphor for a new and free social order.

Alexander Calder (1898 - 1976), Black Frame,1934 Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA, © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976), Black Frame,1934 Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA, © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London

The pictures deconstruct a two dimensional surface for it to be reconstructed as a moving piece of three dimensional sculptures that whirrs from wires. The picture is exploded in to its components – each fragment dances delicately in front of the viewer in a symphony of infinite orders – no two onlookers will ever have the same view and the piece will continue to shift in form well beyond the time of our gaze.

By Harry Seymour

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, 11 November 2015 – 3 April 2016, Tate Modern, London.