Many are not familiar with the work of Alexander Calder (1898 -1976) but this new exhibition, surveying over 100 pieces of the American modernist’s work, has been neatly curated to rectify this. The Tate Modern has introduced the UK’s largest exhibition of Calder that embodies his extraordinary sculptures, yet what sets his sculptures apart, from others, is that they come to life through movement, forcing the viewer to do more than stare at the art, and move with it. These performance sculptures incorporate ‘mobile’, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1931 which played a significant part in Calder’s formation of kinetic abstraction.
In 1937 he said, ‘with a mechanical drive, you can control the thing like the choreography in ballet’ and it was this passion for dance and theatre that became part of his unique application of motors, particularly in his Cirque Calder works in the 1920s where the concept of the circus was entirely brand new.
Calder didn’t come into the art world until 1923. He joined the Art Student League in New York after studying a degree in mechanical engineering, which was the driving force behind his large works, (Snow Flurry I (1948), Gamma (1947), Red Gongs (1950), from the 1940s where he began sculpted with sheet metal and wire.
His sculpting style was experimental. He incorporating stone, bronze, fabric, button, cork and wood, even wire was a novelty back then. ‘Drawing in space’ is one way of reading Calder’s earlier pieces, from Hercules and Lion (1928), his individual circus performance pieces in 1926 to Fernand Léger (1930), who was a dear friend in the artist community.
With his fascination with the theory of art (object and agent), eye for precision and understanding of the nuances of light and shadows, Calder developed caricatures and life-like energy from his pieces. (They almost look like one-line drawings of faces hanging in thin air.)
His life changing moment was in 1930 where he visited the studio of geometric abstraction pioneer and artist Pier Mondrian where he moved onto free motion and adapted his work to mechanical processes. He added small motors to make his work twist, turn and oscillate such as The Orange Panel (1936) shown in Room 5. The Tate Modern displays this work yet to see it move, as Calder had intended, a video clip exhibiting the motor in action is displayed on the side. It’s not ideal but from watching it one can understand the abstract ideas that Calder wanted to address; the unique, performative and ‘quasi-astral dance’ quality, which critics dubbed his motorised work, allude to the cubist and futurist art movements which were popular at the time.
Room 9 explores Calder move to an old farm in Connecticut where he invested more time in creating geometric and human-size mobiles from organic, natural and pastoral forms. Much of his materials were scraps and recycled parts (e.g. car license plate) from WWII. Snow Flurry is a key example that rotates like a snow blizzard and balances like a white plant with extended tendrils.
The final room holds Calder’s pièce de résistance, Black Widow (1948). It is a strikingly bold and iconic mobile as large as 12 feet tall with 19 black metal shapes that has been hanging in Sãn Paulo for more than 50 years; it was a present from Calder to the Institute dos Arquitetos do Brasil.
With eleven rooms, the Tate Modern do as much as they can, academically and artistically, to set the record straight on Calder’s ideas and the underlying principles of Calder’s motion sculptures. There are some rooms that are far more interesting than others, with works which a photograph cannot capture. Yet comparing the rooms – static objects versus moving objects – is the wrong way to approach the Performing Sculpture exhibition. It is a reassuring retrospective of how Calder arrived at his radical ideas, nonetheless, but it is better to go there and watch it for yourself.