I think there has probably been a moment for most aspiring artists since the 1960’s, a memorable moment, when they were introduced to, discovered, or were confronted by, the inexplicable ‘mobiles’ and ‘stabiles’ of that now landmark American artist, Alexander Calder.
I state the blooming obvious because nowadays, as we are accustomed to the spectacle of Koons, the intelligent cultural agitprop of Ai Wei Wei and the seemingly limitless e-forays of Hockney into the perspective of England’s leafy B-Roads, we tend to forget the poetry and kinetic reflexivity of Calder. This show, presented so beautifully in the confines of the Tate Modern in London, is a timely reminder of the wider indebtedness of sculptors to an art that moves (forgive the double entendre).
The selection of possible antecedents for Calder’s work seems largely to be (re)cited with a degree of dull plausibility in terms of civilization’s need to hang things up; whether these hangings were the Tintinnabula of Ancient Rome, Babylonian gardens, surrealist constructs or the simply clothes on the washing line. I would argue that, excepting the Surrealists, many of these possible ‘origins’ or inspirations have sprung out of the desperate trawling of narrators searching for context, interpretative leverage and, ultimately, meaning. Hanging meaning on Calder is not without irony of course.
For me, Calder’s brilliance is quite unlike that of Picabia and Duchamp et al., whose multi-dimensional cleverness bred images of impossible machines or resulted in the transfixed and choreographed mechanics of the ‘Large Glass’. Calder understood movement in the moment and the propensity of moving objects, subtle or dramatic, to function as working practical and theoretical models of (and for) contemplative consideration.
In his work, Calder manages to say what we may have all been implicitly supposing for a very long time: that the world stands as the uncanny reciprocator of human consciousness; as we thin the density of this assertion, (and as if to prove Lacan’s ‘stade du miroir’), we should be entirely unsurprised that babies and children love mobiles as models for contemplation and wonder. A true turn of events accompanied by a corollary turning over of thought.
The work in ‘Performing Sculpture’ is an excellent fit with Tate and the mobiles feel incredibly contemporary as they rotate and orbit like forgotten Sputniks within the museum, nervously displaced by the breath and motion of the audience through this particular compartment of space/time.
If you think the above fanciful, think again; in his text ‘What abstract art means to me’, produced for the MoMA Bulletin, (18, no. 3 Spring 1951) Calder writes:
“What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.”
His terminology here (and in many other intelligent writings) is symptomatic; for instance, ‘interlarding’ as he calls it, signs us to a practice with an intonation and awareness of language/concept that seems indispensable in defining the parameters of the activity and form of the work. In contrast, Calder’s popularity and his large scale commissions for museums (and the occasional shopping mall), meant that the arts cognoscenti of the late 20th Century didn’t always take Calder’s oeuvre all that seriously, especially in terms of the crisis in Modernism; Calder’s work just wasn’t a neat fit, or enough of a discomfit, to be debunked by dialogical conceptualism.
Tate should be congratulated for this show; it blows away the cobwebs from the mind and we see the work of a genuine innovator, and, with Ad Reinhardt, a possible precursor to the ‘dematerialisation’ of the art object that was to follow almost immediately on his passing in 1976.
In 1494, Piero de’ Medici commissioned a 19-year-old sculptor, one Michelangelo Buonarroti, to create a snowman. Vasari speculates that this figure would surely have been one of the greatest snowmen ever created, but many years ago a sculptor friend said to me that: ‘Michelangelo’s statue of ‘David’ stands in time like a snowman in the sun’ – this in terms of our ability to understand the original intent and position of this work; It struck me on seeing the work of Alexander Calder at the Tate that this resonant assertion may actually be true. Strangely transient and vulnerable, Calder’s work endures so successfully because it manages to contain the fugitive nature of human playfulness with a lightness of touch and quality of perception that are more than rare.
With apologies to Signor Buonarroti, definitely a show to catch.