(Another art exhibition reviewed just as it ends)
”He defined figures with delicate lines in space, not as a solid mass”
- From the gallery guide
”Drawing in space”
In 1923, Alexander Calder started sculpting not by carving into stone or casting metal, but bending wire. Modernism's most basic precept is clearly at work here. We don't live in the Stone or the Bronze age any more, so why still make sculpture like we do? But there's more, much more...
Calder hung around both New York and Paris, the twin centres of Modernism in this period, and his wire portraits reveal him as a figure on the scene. Many of Modernism's totems adorn the walls, such as Miro or Leger. But his works were famously dubbed 'mobiles' by no less than Duchamp, and he has Duchamp's insistence on using not just non-art but transparent and apparently transient materials. As the show says, “he felt that it was a mark of modernity that his wire figures possessed a kind of transparency”. (And as we've seen before, Duchamp himself had a predilection for glass.)
His method was soon dubbed “drawing in space” - an apt tag, for the images are by necessity 'doodly'. Look at thumbnail images of them and they're almost like pen sketches. (Even down to the variance in line thickness, see illo below.) And in fact his preparatory sketches, where displayed, look almost identical to the realised work. Which is again similar to Duchamp, who considered the purpose of a work to put across the idea behind it in the most economical, least distracting way. We could call that 'proto-conceptual' if we were those sorts of people.
Which creates something of a puzzle. As argued previously, the key to Duchamp is that he dealt in anti-art. Attempts by artists to paper over that inconvenient fact usually result in ruin, in short-term gimmickry which leads only to hopeless dead ends. (Brit Art being only the most calamitous case of a sorry trend.) It's like trying to build where someone had already staked out quicksand. And yet Calder wasn't an anti-artist in the slightest, as we'll come to see his works were celebratorily creative. As Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian, his “mobiles are made to give pleasure. They don't... baffle us in the way Duchamp did”. But he still went on to have an inter-relationship not only with Duchamp but his disciples. I am really not sure how he managed that. It's like he took just enough Duchamp to catalyse his art without destroying it, like a poison being used as a homeopathic remedy.
But if these first room works are not dismissable juvenilia, neither are they even embryonic – rather, they're preparatory. Notably works of this period can have the classical titles and subject matter of old-time sculpture, such as 'Medusa' (c. 1930) or 'Hercules and the Lion' (1928, below). Calder might have meant this as something of a taunt to the old school, but it rebounds – suggesting he hasn't yet fully left it all behind. Wire was to prove only one element of the mature Calder's DNA. We see the rest of him assemble over the successive rooms.
The Circus Comes To Town...
Animal and circus themes appeared in his work around the same time, but showed more of a way forward. Notably, with them creep in new materials. There's a great playfulness at work, with for example 'Dog' (1926/31, also below) using a clothes peg for a dog's head. Sometimes he signs the works by writing his name in bent wire. And those themes and this playfulness coincide, in a positive feedback loop. There's a certain way we're conditioned to look at a sculpture titled 'Hercules'; no matter how its made. But now think of a sculpture titled 'Circus Strongman' or 'Acrobat'. And with the new materials comes colour, for example 'Red Horse and Green Sulky' (1926, below), further adding to the sense of sculpture designed to entice and enthrall rather than display gravitas.
The works have a poise, a gravity-defying elegance and a suggestion of movement stone or wood could never convey. See for example 'The Brass Family' (1929, below). Sculpture had been about artists diligently carving mighty subjects out of solid, timeless material. Now it's like all that weight and solidity have been thrown off, as if someone had walked over to art and asked it to dance.
The show tells us “embodying the vitality of dancers or acrobats, Calder's sculptures were performers in their own right”. And that's no metaphor. Calder would stage performances of the self-styled Cirque Calder where he'd put those objects to work. The show includes invites to these made from lino cuts, like traditional circus posters, and a video of Calder performing it in 1927.
Thinking of their later use as baby mobiles, some comment on the irony that Calder's art “became toys”. As this video makes clear, they're entirely wrong – they were toys from the start. As Craig Raine writes in the New Statesman, “his talent isn’t injured by the snobbery of seriousness”. The video's like the coolest children's show you ever saw, with attendees laughing out loud while watching. (And make me reflect once more how the hand-made, hands-on nature of the kids' shows I saw, such as 'Blue Peter' or 'Vision On', has lamentably succumbed to virtual reality. We've become like the child in 'Room' who imagines the TV is a whole other word, unconnected to ours.)
...the Music Strikes Up...
But suggesting movement, almost from the start, wasn't enough for Calder. He wanted his mobiles to be... well, mobile. The very first room contains 'Goldfish Bowl' (1929), where the fish moved once you turned a handle. How to make them mobile became a process of trial and error, as we'll see. But, and again almost from the start, movement brought with it another element. Calder summed up sculpture as “weight, form, size, colour, motion and then you have noise”. If a sculpture can move, why not use that movement to make sound? His work can even have an equivalence to musical notation, the coloured shapes approximating notes while the wires make a warped approximation of bars.
With 'Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere' (1932/3, below), viewers could originally not only set the spheres in motion, bashing irregularly against the objects, but arrange the objects as suited them. Except, due to the disparity of sizes between the spheres, the result could never be arranged. The combinations were infinite and unforeseeable. Notably Calder associated with Cage (of course himself a Duchamp disciple), and his chance compositions.
Except 'Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere' leads us to a... in fact the drawback of this exhibition. And it's almost exactly the same one that we had with the recent Jospeh Cornell show at the Academy. As this description might suggest, the visual elements of this work aren't all that important. It's like an instrument, the point is to pick up and play it.
Except of course you're not allowed to. Instead a thick white line and a sensor alarm keep you from getting near it. (As artists, the two were quite different. Calder doesn't share Cornell's interest in the allure of mystery, in fact he seems more disposed to pare art back to its constituent elements. But in this way the shows are similar.)
Yes, as with Cornell, there's a video of it in motion. But videos aren't just passive, they attach a significance to an event; inevitably, you end up watching like you would a film. You may not expect a plot but you assume there'll be developments. What they need to do is just move, in the naturalised way the hands of a wall clock just turn or the leaves of a tree flutter in the breeze.
And it's worse than the object not being displayed as it's creator intended. We're in an art exhibition, where we're keyed to see things symbolically. And so we're effectively told that we've arrived after the event. It's like Modernism once had a life, it was something which worked for people. While all we can do is gawp at the detritus of that. It leaves a “party's over” feeling hanging over the piece. Look back at that illo of 'Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere' - it's made up of bottles, balls and other easily obtainable objects. It could have been recreated through a quick trip to the shop.
Making the Abstract Move
Calder's next component fell into place with surprising neatness – he visited Mondrian's studio and was won over to abstraction. (He called it “the shock that converted me”.) He even managed to do it in an easy-to-remember year, 1930.
This story appeals to me, for I've long thought that Mondrian's studio was the real work of art, his paintings just constituent elements which people kept foolishly removing from it. Mondrian himself thought differently, of course, but I don't really see what that's got to do with it. (It was recreated by the Tate a few years ago, but at Tate Liverpool - too far for a Brighton boy to visit.)
Mondrian's art by this point, with its regulated blocks and lines, could hardly have become more static. And when he disagreed with the suggestion of setting abstraction into motion, Calder resolved to do the thing himself.
One of his original ideas to realise this was to fit a motor, making his works into a set of turning parts. And in his slow but steady development, these motorised works are a rare (perhaps the only) mis-step. As with everything else, we don't see them actually turn as intended. But the problem is deeper. As they follow their prescribed paths then do it again they look too ordered, too regular. And as the show tells us, this is something he soon came to realise himself, as he turned more towards what he called “free movement”.
And yet oddly, around this era other works have the same clockwork spirit. After having said earlier there isn't much comparison between Calder and Cornell, we may have stumbled upon one. As with Cornell, he made numerous works in the form of Orreries, defined (at least by me) as “clockwork models of the solar system popular among the Victorians”. Check out, for example, the mapped trajectories of 'Object With Red Ball' (1931, below).Yet unlike Cornell there's none of the sense of the ghost in the machine. They just look like diagrams of mechanisms, motorised works without the motor. Cage's chance is nowhere in sight.
Mapping the Constellations
Motion and sound were the final two items in Calder's shopping list for sculpture. However, there's one more element that needs to be introduced before his work's complete. Though the show tells us he owes his abstraction all to Mondrian, I have always fancied a connection between Calder and Miro. Though another contemporary and compatriot, Miro gets little mention in this show. (Even if he features in one of the wire portraits.) Compare Calder to Micro's masterful 'Constellations' series of 1939/41; such as 'Constellation the Morning Star' (1939, below). There's the same 'lines-and-nodes' almost diagrammatic approach to composition, with shapes of pure colour connected by sharp black lines. (Though I have no notion of who influenced who, or even if anyone did. The fancy might simply come from my being such a fan of Miro while caring less for Mondrian.)
Even Miro's habit of placing his forms before a flat background can find an echo in Calder. Though in his case he'd place coloured shapes in relief before a painted panel, in essence placing a sculpture before a painted backdrop. This can give the sculptural elements a 'push', as though the panel is their spring-board into the room. 'Form Against Yellow' (1936, below) even has the suggestion of a figure dynamically diving towards you, arm upraised like a swimmer. But abstract forms are more common, in works such as 'White Panel' (1936, also below) even if the effect is the same.
But perhaps what Calder most has in common with Miro is his rejection of Mondrian's perfect geometry. While he always hung onto circles, the final element of his make-up is the evolution of the misshapen leaf form. And the whole shape of his mobiles shifts with it. His compositional genius was to make imbalance appealing and inviting, giving it an irresolvable dynamism. Look again at 'White Panel' with that long streak of black bent along one side of it. Look at the bends and turns in 'Morning Star' (1943, below), like an antenna tuned into Radio Askew.
Notably, like Miro, Calder often gave his mature work cosmic titles such as this. They even included Miro's chosen term, such as 'Constellation' (1943, below) and 'Black Constellation' in the same year. (Though the show tells us the term was something else which came from Duchamp.) Calder said himself, in 1951:
“The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe. 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.”
While, writing in the Standard, Matthew Collings spies “a hint of the Atomic Age, of molecular structures and orbiting planets at a time when science didn’t yet cause anyone to be fearful or cynical”. (While the earlier motorised works would seem more in spirit with the old, ordered Newtonian physics.)
Back to Nature
The cosmic of course exists at such a scale and remove from us it might as well be abstract. Yet like many of its great practitioners, Calder's abstraction is not pure. It keeps open a relationship to its environment, just a suggestive rather than a slavishly imitative one. Laura Cumming writes in the Guardian of “the enchanted forest at the heart of this show where mobiles shiver like silver honesty leaves, and black forms dangle like the last petals on wintry bushes.” And the waxing lyrical is warranted.
Again this is frequently reflected in the names. 'Vertical Foliage' (1941, below) suggests the twisted branch of nature, leaf forms emerging in a manner somehow systematic and unpredictable. While in 'Snow Flurry' (1948)... well, the dominant colour is white. The show speculates that this revisiting of nature might have been precipitated by his shifting his studio to an old Connecticut farm in 1933.
And it seems in parallel with this revisiting that Calder finally solves the problem of motion - in the simplest and most elegant way, the way nature does it. The delicate mobiles are able to catch the breeze even from the ambient draughts drifting across the room. Exhilaratingly, you can watch them spin slowly, seemingly of their own accord.
And Calder's love of Cagean chance processes and indeterminate composition finds it's expression.Calder's work is sometimes dismissed as simple variations on a theme. But the connection between his work and Cage really answers that. There's a richness in those perpetual variations. They achieve for the eye what Cage does for the ear, they look completely simple and straightforward while soon becoming compelling.
Like any great sculpture show, only possibly even more so, you can't just work the room systematically taking in each piece. You keep looking behind and around you, re-seeing what you only just saw, only from some new angle or set alongside something else. The pieces really are pieces, part of something bigger. (Something similar was to be found in the recent Barbara Hepworth sculpture show.)
In the show's second-biggest weakness, we don't see his larger-scale works or monumental outdoor stabiles. Though there's one big exception to this rule - the 'Black Widow' (1948), normally hung in the lobby of the Sao Paolo Institute of Architects and out on loan for the first time. Notably, and again like Hepworth, its flexible enough that it works as well against the white wall of the gallery or when placed in situ (see photo below). We do see photos of Thirties Worlds Fairs he participated in (including exhibiting alongside Picasso's 'Guernica' in the Republican Spanish pavilion in '37), but the show really needed some large-scale photos of his stabiles.
Its true we may only see the mature, realised Calder for the final third of the show. But there's an appeal in seeing that maturation happen, in Calder bending open a wire frame and then assembling himself around it. Calder is one of those artists who looks like anyone should be able to copy him, yet no-one really can. He's another reason, as if we needed one, to reject the notion that abstract art has to be something austere and remote. His work virtually radiates childlike joy!