Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture

"Calder, it must be remembered, did not invent motion but rather found a place for it in the expressive vocabulary of art" – Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum, for the catalogue of Alexander Calder retrospective in 1964.

Over fifty years on, Tate Modern is holding the largest Alexander Calder's exhibition to date, which will be held until 3rd April 2016. Not only his famous ‘mobiles’ from New York, Paris and Brazil are all displayed together for the first time, but also with some works receiving their first overseas exposure. The exhibition aims to show how radical and revolutionary Calder’s work really was and toexplore his particular language of the kinetic sculpture. With each room progressing from one to another, works are shown both chronologically and by themes, such as the circus and the universe. This is not just an exhibition of his mobiles, it goes far beyond that, showing how Calder was also interested in sound and inspired by the performance, bringing volume and movement to the sculpture.

Calder during rehearsals for Work in Progress, Teatro dell'Opera, Rome, 1968    Photograph by John G. Ross

Calder during rehearsals for Work in Progress, Teatro dell'Opera, Rome, 1968

Photograph by John G. Ross

The first room is introductory room, where are shown how Calder changed the way society views sculpture. As it was generally assumed sculpture to be a solid form, shown on some sort of pedestal, but he reverses this tradition by creating free-floating sculptures out of wire - known as three-dimensional ‘drawings in space’. With these works Calder is beginning to explore movement in sculpture. His 1929 wire piece ‘Goldfish Bowl’ has a turnable crank which moves fish up and down within their container, which was actually the first moving sculpture the artist made. The two other sculptures in the room are hanging from the ceiling, oscillating without human interaction and thus becoming kinetic. These sculptures are of mythological Gods, Medusa and Hercules, further subverting the traditional meaning of sculpture as Greek Gods are usually in stone sculpture.

Hercules and Lion, c.1928    Calder Foundation, New York

Hercules and Lion, c.1928

Calder Foundation, New York

Continuing into the circus themed room, wired sculptures of various important figures such as Fernand Leger, Joan Miro and Josephine Baker are brought to life by the movement created as they hang from the ceiling. Calder was using a different kind of material and metal to disclose the characters: circus figures were made from wood, wire, cork, buttons and fabric. Each figure renders a different performer, for example, a contortionist, acrobat or a sword eater. Calder would use these to stage circus performances at his ‘Cirque Calder’, because of which he became well-known in Paris in the late 1920s.

Untitled, c. 1934     Calder Foundation, New York

Untitled, c. 1934

Calder Foundation, New York

In the 1930s Calder visited Mondrian studio which stroke him so much, that he radically dropped creating figurative pieces and set himself a challenge to produce concrete forms of abstraction and move them away from the canvas. The works in this Mondrian-inspired room combine movement and abstraction with primary coloured and geometric shapes swinging on mobiles. The theme of movement is developed further in the next room, where Calder’s motorised works are exhibited. These mechanical sculptures are no longer free-moving, they had prescribed movement limited by small motors. ‘Black Frame’ (1934) has a rotating red ball that goes beyond the frame, a rotating yellow cylinder and a long white coil that spins, all against an abstract black background - making the mechanical motion particularly eye-catching. Free motion returns in the next room, where sculptures hang above painted plywood panels creating both depth and juxtaposition between the moving sculpture and the static panel.

In the mid-1930s, Calder developed his classic design of a ‘mobile’, releasing sculpture from the wall or plinth. Calder believed that these works had influence from the universe, continuously altering their movement in accordance to its elements. In 1951 he wrote ‘the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe’. One whole room in this exhibition is dedicated to Calder’s work representing the universe, for example his 1943 ‘Constellation’, given its title by Marcel Duchamp. The floating shapes move in peculiar ways, not dissimilar to orbiting planets in space.

The next room is filled with quintessential Calder mobiles, creating a serene and peaceful environment for the viewer of these delicate works. The idea of this room is to see mobile works in relation to each other, against the floor or through each other. That is why one of the difficulties in curating it, according to Ann Cox, was to visualise, how the mobiles would look all together. Thus the shadows, produced by the works, are also very important, and to display these mobiles correctly, there was used particular way of lighting - one directional.

Black Widow, c. 1948    The Institute of Architects of Brazil, São Paulo

Black Widow, c. 1948

The Institute of Architects of Brazil, São Paulo

Moving on to the theme of sound, Calder incorporates gongs of different pitches into his mobiles, creating a series of several musical notes as they move. These works were influenced by his first experimentation with sound - ‘Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere’ (1932/3) - an arrangement of objects on a platform that creates sound when two swinging balls are set into motion. Originally viewers were encouraged to move the objects around to experiment with the range of sounds that could be made.

The show concludes with Black Widow, donated to the Institute of Architects of Brazil in São Paulo in 1948, a masterpiece receiving its first showing outside of Brazil. It can be perceived as an architectural piece, as it engages with space and becomes part of the room.

Throughout his artistic career, Alexander Calder wanted to free the sculpture, bring it to movement and make it a performer in itself. This exhibition truly brings to light what radical gesture in the development of sculpture Calder did and what his work were all about, including all of his themes in one space, making for a thoroughly interesting and informative one.