‘Pure art in motion’ is the best way of describing the brilliant Alexander Calder exhibition at London’s Tate Modern this season.
Alexander Calder was one of the most important American artists of the 20th Century, famous for his pioneering approach to sculpture. He was ‘Mobile Man’, the originator of mobile art and performing sculpture.
His works are a joy to behold with their lightness of touch and delicate lines in space. They almost float in the air above you as you stroll around this beautiful show which is crammed with many works rarely seen on public display.
Man on a wire
“I love the space of the circus. I made some drawings of nothing but the tent. The whole thing of—the vast space—I’ve always loved it” – Alexander Calder
From the first gallery, it’s obvious that this is going to be a knock-out exhibition. Calder’s early works of circus performers and cabaret singers made from wire hang from the ceiling and twirl gently in the still air of the galleries.
Later in his career, he created his own miniature Cirque Calder, and his love of theatricality is also revealed in models of his iconic Mercury Fountain at the Paris World Fair in 1937.
Celebrity subjects also come to life in these wire works including cabaret singer Josephine Baker, tennis player Helen Wills and fellow artist Fernand Leger.
A gallery sign warns us not to blow at these fragile constructions in case they lose their ability to sway.
These ‘still lives’ in motion were radical for their time. When Calder constructed them in the 1920s , most modern sculptures were made from bronze, stone or wood.
Calder wanted to break the mould (quite literally) with these ‘drawings in space’ which possess a floating quality with their transparent, twirling forms.
He went one step further with a 1932 work called ‘Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere’ which combines sculpture with music and performance. A red sphere is pushed so a white object knocks against other items including bottles, a can and a gong, making a range of thudding and crashing sounds.
Sadly, the work is so fragile that it can only be seen in full motion on a video today, but it is a remarkable piece. Originally, viewers could move around and bump the objects, a very early example of interactive art!
I would have loved to have visited Calder’s studio with its marvellous mobile creations. He even added fabric, corks and buttons to some of his early works whilst later installations incorporated motorised elements with varying degrees of success.
Gazing at the mobiles, it struck me how Calder’s works recall the cut-outs and collages of Matisse, who also featured in a recent Tate Modern exhibition. There are also flashes of Miro and Mondrian in his mobile shapes and colours.
There is a sense of modern art being turned into four dimensions. Movement and floating bodies are central to Calder’s work – his sculptures are never static.
Calder himself once said that the underlying sense of form in his work was “the system of the Universe – the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities… some at rest whilst others move in peculiar manners”.
In the mid 1930s Calder developed his classic mobiles for which he is best known today. These bigger, dynamic art works cover the gallery space, swaying and rotating, evolving at every turn.
The elegantly balanced constructions of wires and painted pieces of sheet metal are suspended from the ceiling, changing constantly in the light and space.
There is definitely something that reminds me of inter-planetary systems in these large-scale pieces. It’s almost like you’re inside a planetarium in full daylight. There’s also a very organic feel to these works – there are echoes of plants with tendrils and leaves fluttering in a light breeze.
In the 1940s Calder took his stunning constructions to a new level, building works which incorporated gongs of different pitches producing a series of musical notes.
These mobile pieces became an important influence on experimental composers like John Cage who loved the idea of chance and ‘open composition’.
Music and art have rarely worked better alongside each other. The kinetic works dance their way across the galleries like poetry in motion with a musical accompaniment.
Alexander Calder’s kinetic art is a revelation. It’s fresh, simple and emotionally engaging. These flights of fancy are truly beautiful and lyrical in their subtle movements.
The exhibition is a joy to walk around after a day’s tramping around London’s wintery Thameside terraces and streets. Lovingly curated, this show leads the visitor through the artist’s journey without thrusting too much art theory in their faces. It is also brilliant at focusing on this impressive area of Calder’s multi-faceted career.
Calder’s dynamic mobiles kicked sculpture into the 20th Century and a fourth dimension of space. Despite the passage of time, these works stand the test of artistic greatness.
Alexander Calder has been described as the ‘perpetual motion man’. Long may his moving creations reign.
Tammy’s Guide to Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder – Performing Sculpture is at the Tate Modern in London from 11 November 2015 to 3 April 2016. There is a £20 exhibition fee for the show (concessions available).
The nearest Tube station to the Tate @ Bankside is Southwark whilst the RV1 bus from Covent Garden and Waterloo stops near the gallery.
Look out for special events at the Tate Modern linked to the exhibition and don’t miss the multimedia guide and APP to make the most of the show.
If you’re a fan of Alexander Calder, several international galleries have good examples of his works. The Whitney Museum in New York boasts the largest body whilst MOMA and the Guggenheim feature key pieces. The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC also has an impressive Calder Room.
Fans of his later work will enjoy the outdoor sculptures at Storm King in New York state. Many of his big, outdoor sculptures can be found in cities as diverse as Berlin, Rotterdam and Edinburgh.