The good art generates new art: a short story about Alexander Calder’s retrospective at the Tate

Geoff Hands

Long Ago. Imagine it is 1908 (ten years after Alexander Calder’s birth) and your parents took you to The Art Gallery of the Future. Let’s call this place, Tate Modern; and assume Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture is the event.


You have not been to a gallery before, so you are both apprehensive and excited, if that’s not a contradiction. How do you behave in a gallery? There’s much to be discovered and the first impressions, as you dash around too quickly, is of an old curiosity shop that extends to 11 rooms. There’s great variety, it’s at once entertaining and many of the constructions in the first few rooms are suggestive of play and experimentation – as if the work was picked up from the artist’s studio before he expected the curators to arrive and he could get too complicated, or technical, with his making processes. Or so it seems at first glance.


There’s so much to look at, the sculptures are everywhere, and you want to see it all at once. There are objects in glass cases, on the floor, on small plinths, attached to the wall and even suspended from the ceiling. Before you arrived, your father told you that the suspended works are called Mobiles and that a rather important artist of the near future, Marcel Duchamp, gave them this name. Your mother says that Calder owed more to Pablo Picasso (who had recently created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907]) than Duchamp; but you’re not too concerned – influences are fine, but what Calder chose to do himself, as he challenged entrenched conventions of sculpture, by seemingly having fun with his various constructions, was achieved through the making process with physical materials and the phenomena of movement and balance, as much as from ideas (which, it turns out, would be called concepts in a few decades time).


But you arrived at the end of the exhibition (Room 11) too soon. You have a taste of the show, but you have not really looked at anything. Your mum is probably still in Room1 and dad is likely to be in Room 6 or 7. He always gets to the end of shows quicker than most, but typically tracks back to pick out a “few gems” (as he calls them) and to study the artworks for longer. There are habits formed in visiting art galleries. You wisely learn that the race to the end is not one to be recommended.


Best return to the beginning of the show to spend a little more time with the Goldfish Bowl [1929] and notice that Mr. Calder has signed his name in wire. Off to the side, in Room 2, there’s something very futuristic called an ‘installation’, where Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere [1932/33] reminds you of skittles, only it would be a shame if the glass bottles got broken by the swinging red and white balls, but it’s immobile now. No problem; the accompanying motion picture (which is an improvement on the Kinemacolor that has recently been invented) has developed into digital video, and shows the action.


In this fascinating environment, full of odds and ends at the beginning, the curators have assembled various circus toys, including a Dog [1926-31] with a clothes-peg head and an Elephant [1927] whose trunk twists into a spiral that summarizes spiralness, rather than true anatomical form, which suits both the wire and the spirit of the piece. There are a variety of figures too: some are acrobats, alone or in pairs; others bend and twist into portrait heads made from lengths of wire, Fernand Léger [c.1930] with his cool hat, bold moustache and big nose must be worth meeting in the future; there’s also a rather funny lady with spirally breasts, Aztec: Josephine Baker [1930], who must be great to dance with; and there’s Hercules and Lion [1928] who constitute the most amazing scribble through space.


There are also moving machines, colourful and interactive, as toys will be in the future. You cannot touch these objects, though it’s tempting, but you might blow them to make them move – which you do, surreptitiously. You would also like to take one home, so that you could spin the various parts around at your leisure, or bang on a small constellation of bright red cymbal-like petals – maybe that’s in the future too. In two or three places, someone has installed under floor fans that blow through floor vents and gently make the mobiles move – but it’s subtle, like a gentle breeze that rustles the leaves on the trees in the park. You did not expect to find naturalistic references in these mechanical forms. There are many small suns too; hi-tech spotlights, and this might be a theatre or a circus tent, as well as a gallery, a hundred years or more hence. It’s certainly not a shop, but you get “curiouser and curiouser” – just like Alice (in Wonderland) if she could have joined you. You’ve gone through a portal to another world.


Did a child make these? Or a grown up with a sense of child-like investigation into the mechanical, phenomenal and imaginative qualities of the materials? Mr. Calder has played with space, balance, weight, colour, movement, shadows and light – the very things that you suspect the adults forget about as they live their busy lives.

The sculptures get inside you – and you want to go home and make your own Calders.


Now. During the school holidays, and at weekends, there are many families visiting Tate Modern, closely on a par with any other major art institution or museum in the UK, despite visitor numbers falling up to 20% in the last few years. The cost of exhibition entrance, for ‘Special Exhibitions’ as the Tate calls them, are quite expensive. Regretfully, as Britain slowly struggles out of recession, this will exclude a significant proportion of the population. But if funds are available this is a magnificent show to share as a family.


Today, midweek, it’s mostly adults. The majority of visitors stroll around at a leisurely pace – and there are more than a few who turn back at Room 11 to look again. This is a revelatory display, especially if you have time to really take it in. Two or three ‘gems’ might be enough to satisfy you on the first visit – though all exhibitions worth seeing, worth experiencing, are worthy of repeat visits.


Overseen by Achim Borchardt-Hume (Head of Exhibitions), with co-curators, Ann Coxon and Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Performing Sculpture is, in total, a real gem of a show. Borchardt-Hume was interviewed in 2010 by curator and writer, Didem Yazici for RES Art World/World Art (No.5, March 2010) and made the following comment that is fully realized in this show:

“… exhibitions must be experiential. It has something to do with encountering the work in space, face to face, and the uniqueness of that encounter. I think it’s the most basic element, but also the one most easily forgotten, and that is to my mind the reason for making an exhibition…”


For Calder, visual dynamism, expressed through abstract language and carefully calibrated movement and composition, became an essential condition of his sculpture. A fixed mobile would be incomplete. Before Calder, sculpture (like painting), was, in a literal sense, typically static (unless carried in a procession on a Holy Day – but that’s not the same thing), though a sense of the kinetic was possible, especially in the Baroque era. Inspired by Picasso: the Futurists and the Cubo-Futurists indicated movement forcefully, if naively. A little later in the century, the undoubted, if inadvertent, influence of Piet Mondrian on Calder‘s sculptures (to foresee sculpture as environment) sparked the transition into a more advanced, modernist abstraction. Primary colours and geometric shapes were a starting position, pinpointing a major stage in his sculptural journey from the 1930s onwards – but the consequences of Cubism (especially Picasso’s attitude to breaking and re-constructing any rule or convention he could address) and the performative nature of a sense of time and space related to form and representation, embedded in the Cubist experiment, was fully exploited by Calder.


It’s important to account for the wider art historical context in relation to 20th century modern (western) art, because although Calder spent a lot of time working in Europe, especially France, he was a precursor to Pollock’s ‘Action Painting’ and the formation of a truly independent (north) American art.


From the perspective of today we would be correct to assume that Calder had a subversive attitude to sculpture, as he undermined conventional formats and materials. Out go marble, bronze and wood. In come sheet metal, wire and bits of pre-formed wood (a broom handle, some dowelling – and that clothes peg!). It’s probably impossible now to realize how fresh this use of materials was. We might apply the term interdisciplinary to his vision for sculpture: Calder aspires to the condition of architecture and the built environment, his work is ambitiously performative, and, at a pinch, the light shows of Warhol and the psychedelic movements in Europe might be historically related too.


In many of Calder’s sculptures the phenomena of a graceful, slow tempo – so slow a metronome might falter or stop – is aligned to light and forms, suspended and shifting naturalistically. This sense, or phenomenon of time, is apparent in several works from 1936 that combine a raw, shorthand abstraction with Matissian cut-out dancer type forms from the same decade. For example in Blue, White or Red Panel [all 1936] if you sit, relax and wait awhile (a glance would be pointless) you might become mesmerized. Slowly, but surely, the narrow shadow cast from what looks like a length of ‘S curve’ tube (in Red Panel) moves across the white (green on the reverse), flat but curved, organic form. It’s just the shadow of the tip of the pipe. The shadow gets smaller and disengages from the white ground, as if it was never there. A waft of air moves the various forms, twisting on lengths of string. The forms might briefly touch, or, more likely approach, but move apart before they clash.


Form, colour, shape and shadow are animate. Light and shadow are naturalistic elements in this abstract sculpture. You might observe this work, and others, over a lifetime and never see the same orchestration of multiple movements and relationships repeated: or it would be of such a long duration that you would have forgotten.


There’s a short promotional ad on the Tate website that features an extract from Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ soundtrack. How fitting that an ambient reference (in Eno’s case the background, or ambient, sounds not only surround us but can be composed too) has been made. Sound is time-based, and time is necessary to experience any work of art, but especially Calder’s mobiles whether the forms are fixed or, ideally, waving, encircling, or spinning in the air currents of the gallery space.


From the viewpoint of the past, Calder is futuristic. Though pushing the boundaries of sculptural possibilities well into abstraction and having an optimistic sense of the scope of the expanding visual arts in the twentieth century (despite the two world wars), he’s pretty cosmic too.


In 1922, well before meeting Mondrian, Calder sailed from New York to San Francisco via the Panama Canal; later he reflected:

“It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch – a coil of rope – I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed me most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system”.


So, in many works, for the rest of his long international career, we see planet-like forms, orbiting sister shapes and a variety of organic, surreal, leaf-like colour-shapes (à la Joan Miró or Patrick Heron) morphing into ever more sophisticated – and beautiful – configurations.

In this display at Tate Modern, space becomes Space. The sculptures get inside you, to your inner core, and you want to go outside, hold your arms out wide and experience your own Calders.

February 10, 2016