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Alexander Calder’s sculptural fireworks

Tate Modern’s retrospective shows his masterful mix of art, engineering, economy and pleasure

Marion Coutts | December 8th 2015

Engineering a mobile is subtle and complex. Weight, length, mass, horizontals, verticals, balance, motion and rotation all have to be considered. Everything is connected. The kneebone connected to the thighbone. Shifting one joint along by a millimeter leads another to tilt. Moving one part a fraction causes the next to go belly-up. The beauty of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, which are on show at Tate Modern, lies in the relationship of the parts to the whole. That goes for aesthetics as much as for engineering.

Calder (1898-1976) was the American Modernist pioneer of kinetic abstract sculptures suspended in the air. “Mobile” was the word coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1931 to describe what Calder was doing. Before that, there wasn’t really a word for it. Nobody was doing anything like it.

He trained as a mechanical engineer before becoming an artist and the show at the Tate, “Performing Sculpture”, focuses mainly on his work from the 1930s and 1940s. His early work didn’t have much truck with the sculptural conventions of the time. There’s no carving or casting, no big rhetorical statements. Everything is linear and everything is small. Delicate figurative pieces are made out of wire and cork and bits of cloth. Some look like toys: a fish, a horse and cart, a strongman, a pair of acrobats. Others are strangely sophisticated portraits made of bent wire, hung like aerial caricatures. He was a brilliant observer.

Alexander Calder pictured with his “Cirque Calder”, which he began performing in 1926

In 1926, Calder started to animate his works in a performance piece called “Cirque Calder”. This was a cast of wire-frame sculptures – burlesque dancers, trapeze artists, acrobats, lion tamers – that could be packed into a suitcase, to be staged in live shows for an invited audience of friends. It’s small and tightly economical, but big on pleasure and comic timing. “Cirque Calder” is shown on video at the exhibition, and it’s fascinating to see the man in action. A miniature weightlifter made of wire slips off the first of many jackets to reveal a waistcoat and beneath that a bolero. Beneath that is an even smaller bolero. Undressing happens by way of Calder’s hands, which are giant by contrast, and each tiny garment is whisked off with a flourish of finger and thumb. Once stripped, the wiry man lifts his wiry weights above his wiry head and the off-screen audience howls with delight. Next up, a wire sword swallower takes the whole length of his wire rapier inside his body. It is like a joke about a line swallowing a line.

Perceptual tricks abound. “Object with red ball” (1931) has two spheres, a red one and a black one, but the red sphere is a ball and the black one is made from two interlocking 2D circles that rotate gently, presenting their ball-like nature to the viewer. This playfulness and interest in how things moved took a radical shift when Calder went abstract. It was a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930 that did it, and thereafter, though he kept faith strongly with the pleasure principle and the economy of means, he worked with flat abstract shapes in red, yellow, blue, black and white.

“Object with red ball” (1931), one of his earliest abstract pieces

Where Calder is really good is with relationships, configurations and the spaces between things. He energises the distances between points in space in simple and complex ways. A drawing on paper called “Many” (1931) is like a blueprint for this. It consists of a series of dots of varying sizes clustered towards the edge of a page. The dots are black but one is drawn as a circle in outline only, and this one is the biggest. Their relative scales – none bigger than a ten pence piece – and the play of solid shape versus outline, creates out of dots a drama of scale, relation and dependency. It’s a system, a colony, a universe. In 1951 he wrote that “The idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities…some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.”

Like the development of firework technology, from cracker to cascade to exploding chrysanthemum, Calder’s mobiles get more complicated. Forms derived from nature – resembling feathers, leaves or comets – appear. “Red gongs” (1950, pictured top) is a feat of engineering, a sequence of red and gold shapes of descending size balanced along a 2.5 metre horizontal span. And like fireworks, the central fact of Calder’s work is that it happens above your head. You have to look up. Not at the wall but into the volume of the room. Going round a Calder show is to wander with your face uplifted. It’s like doing yoga. The relation of the spine to the neck is mobilised. The neckbone connected to the headbone. You cannot slump and look at the same time. The space you walk in, your breath and body and those of others, are creating air currents that activate what you see. Sculptures that seem autonomous. That’s a rare thing.

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture Tate Modern, London, until April 3rd

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