When Albert Einstein visited the Spanish Pavilion at The World Fair in Paris in 1937, he stayed to watch the motion of an Alexander Calder sculpture for its complete 45-minutes cycle — taking in an entire, artistic performance.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976), 1939 New York World’s Fair (maquette), 1938. Sheet metal, wood, wire, string, paint. 355 x 495 x 235 mm. Calder Foundation, New York © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
The experience is one that Tate curator Ann Coxon hopes to replicate when the museum’s major survey exhibition, Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, opens on 11 November. ‘He saw sculpture as something that could move — that could perform,’ curator Ann Coxon explains.
360 VIEWAlexander Calder’s Vertical out of Horizontal Play video
Bringing together over 100 works, the show celebrates Calder as an artist who revolutionised sculpture, quashing the idea that three-dimensional art should remain static: ‘Calder transformed this,’ comments Director of Exhibitions at Tate Modern Achim Borchardt-Hume. ‘We don’t have to move, the sculpture moves for us.’
Initially trained as an engineer, Alexander Calder (1898-1976) moved to Paris in 1926, producing mechanical toys from found objects including wire, cloth, rubber and cork, his collection eventually expanding to form a miniature circus.
Live performances of the Cirque Calder fast attracted the attention of the city’s avant-garde and, when, in 1929, he began to sculpt in wire — a technique that came to be known as ‘drawing in space’ — his work was given a solo exhibition at the city’s Galerie Billiet.
360 VIEWAlexander Calder’s BullfightPlay video
‘I find the Cirque de Calder really fascinating,’ comments Coxon: ‘He [Calder] produces sketches with an engineer’s mind, creating a system of overhead pulleys and cranks.’ An exuberant soundtrack accompanied each performance, Calder’s mechanical pieces made to dance, smoke cigarettes and tame lions to pizzicato strings.
In 1930, a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio ‘shocked’ Calder into embracing abstract art entirely, the Pennsylvania-born artist abandoning mechanical engineering to sculpt — following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, whose monumental works can be seen in institutions across the US.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Aztec Josephine Baker, circa 1929. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
The early wire drawings Calder developed in Paris evolved into works of art in which traces of the Cirque remained: discrete motorised components were a feature of Calder’s sculptures until 1932, only to be replaced by ‘mobiles’ whose independent parts move on currents of air — their named coined by Calder’s friend, the artist Marcel Duchamp.
The Cirque’s sense of performance also persisted; in many ways, Calder was never far from his original system of levers and pulleys. ‘[Calder’s kinetic art] is abstract painting that never decides its final form,’ comments Borchardt-Hume. ‘Keeping something in motion this way easily associates it with dance — with ballet, or child’s play.’
Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Pantograph, 1931. Wood, wire, sheet metal and motor. 1320 x 1370 x 360 mm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Gift of the Artist & Louisa Calder, 1961 © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, 1932/33. Iron, wood, cord, thread, rod, paint, and impedimenta. 3175 mm height; dimensions variable. Calder Foundation, New York; Mary Calder Rower Bequest, 2011 © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London
Throughout his career, Calder would remain closely associated with music and theatre, collaborating with choreographers including Martha Graham. ‘Calder was constantly involved in performance,’ says Coxon. ‘In 1968 he created Work in Progress, a performance for the opera house in Rome in which his sculptures themselves became the actors’.
Other works to feature in the exhibition include Chef d’Orchestre — a red mobile whose drifting limbs were originally made to conduct four percussionists, the project conceived in 1963 in collaboration with avant-garde American musician Earle Brown. When it was first performed in 1967, musicians also played the sculpture itself — a feat Tate curators intend to replicate when the exhibition opens in November.
360 VIEWAlexander Calder’s Demi GondolaPlay video
The demands of showing artworks that hang, drift and rearrange themselves has not been without its challenges, and Borchardt-Hume admits the Calder exhibition — which assembles the ‘largest ever’ number of mobiles — will be the most difficult installation he has ever tackled: ‘The pieces will arrive flat packed — but as soon as you remove them from the packing they spring out in all directions.’
Once tamed into position, it is hoped sculptures will drift in the currents of air created by passing visitors — the gallery’s air conditioning occasionally giving a helping hand. ‘We’re working on the exhibition design,’ comments Coxon, who cites the curators’ collaboration with Herzog & De Meuron, the Swiss architecture firm who transformed Tate modern from an old power plant in 2000.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Snow Flurry I, 1948. Painted steel sheet, steel wire. 2387 x 2088 mm. Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of the Artist, 1966 © 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
‘It’s a bit like watching the clouds move across the sky,’ continues Coxon, describing the intended effect. ‘The movement’s going to be sure, and it’s going to be steady. With sculptures entitled Vertical Foliage and Snow Flurry, a sense of the natural world has also been important: ‘We’re looking at opening up some of the windows, getting a sense of the outside coming in.’
360 VIEWAlexander Calder’s The FishPlay video
Early wire portraits of Calder’s friends and fellow avant-garde artists will also feature, as will the monumental Black Widow, which, at four metres tall, is on loan for the first time since Calder gifted it to the Institute of Architects in Brazil, where it has hung drifting in the lobby since 1948.
With Calder’s last retrospective held at the Whitney in 1943, Coxon concedes Tate’s exhibition is a much-overdue look at an artist’s whose works which, displayed across the world, have become instantly recognisable: ‘I think Calder tends to be one of those artists people accept, or think they know,’ claiming the ‘childlike’ connotations of his mobiles has also impacted public perception. ‘He came from this very serious avant-garde background,’ comments Coxon. ‘What he was doing was ground breaking; he was a pioneer in his time’.
Main image at top: American artist and sculptor Alexander Calder, 1970. Photograph by Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images
Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture at Tate Modern runs from 11 November 2015 to 3 April 2016. For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily