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Over the years, whenever I was downtown in my hometown of Philadelphia, there was often one Calder or another’s art in the background: Alexander Milne Calder’s landmark 37 foot, 23 ton bronze statue of William Penn atop City Hall and accompanying 200 plus sculptures on the building, his son, Alexander Stirling Calder’s Swann Fountain, with its’ larger than life Art Nouveau inspired representations of the City’s three main waterways on the Parkway, just down from Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the subject of this exhibition, grandson, Alexander Calder’s huge white mobile, ‘Ghost’ drifting above the Museum’s grand staircase. Three generations of Calders in a walkable line, all visible from the City’s art Mecca, elder Calder’s iconic William Penn gracing Philadelphia’s skyline.
This exhibition focuses on how the work of Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976) playfully and inventively explored space, as in how his work occupies and makes use of it, be it on the ground, wall mounted, motorised or slowly shifting via air currents overhead. It’s main focus in doing so, is the artist at work in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, during which time, a seminal moment occurred during a visit to artist Piet Modrian’s studio in 1930, at which time Calder made the suggestion that Modrian’s geometric shapes might be more interesting if they were in motion, a notion Mondrian disagreed with. The rest is Art History, as Calder himself busily experimented with the idea, resulting in his invention of the mobile, so dubbed by artist Marcel Duchamp while Calder was in Paris in the early days of Modern Art. Calder had been known there firstly for his exuberantly executed ‘Cirque Calder’, an inventive affair, featuring small scale acrobats, strong men, trapeze artists, lion tamers and the like, fashioned from corks, bits of wire, recycled wood, tin, paint and whatever else was on hand during his bouts of creation, hand operated and enacted by the artist. Although the collection was initially toted with Calder on his journeys, it soon became too large to transport, though he continued to add to it throughout his life. Wire portraits of faces also preceded mobiles and the shadows these 3 D works generate are nearly as pivotal a part of the experience of viewing them as the pieces themselves. The fluctuating nature of shadows in regard to these works was a forerunner to the randomness and fluctuation Calder’s mobiles would offer, which would also influence his larger, public works later on.
As Calder’s grandson, Alexander S.C. Rowe, President of the Calder Foundation, one of the few people with first-hand knowledge of Calder’s working process explained, his works were not pre-planned or designed, rather, their shapes were cut directly from sheet metal, the resulting pieces then briefly laid out for consideration just prior to assembling…Hence the works’ sense of freedom.
In addition to his much touted mobiles, Calder’s exhibition features chances to appraise rare artistic groupings, one never exhibited together before, namely, that in Room 6, featuring large painted backdrops with coloured shapes suspended in front, suggesting, as the exhibition programme states, ‘two-dimensional abstract paintings that have taken three-dimensional, kinetic form.’ They are all the more involving for their interplay of flat vs. round, horizontals vs. verticals, etc. as well as their contrasting convex/ concave aspects allowing one to view them differently from varying angles.
Along the road to further abstraction, lifelong friend, artist Joan Miro’s reciprocal influence was never more apparent than in Calder’s Constellations sculptures of the early 1940’s, made from pieces of painted wood held together with twisted wire echoing Miro’s Constellation series of paintings 1939 - 41. Here Calder widened his explorations of open spaces, recalling afterward that it was ‘a very weird sensation,’ looking at a show of his where, ‘nothing moved.’ That said, in the context of an exhibition where things did move in Calder’s fashion, reports confirmed Albert Einstein stood for forty minutes, watching A Universe (1934) go through its ninety paces before repeating.
In the rooms in which some of Calder’s greatest mobiles hang, poised to respond to air and motion, admiration abounds, both for the artist’s innate sense of balance and inventiveness and the skilful rendering of the works themselves. Anyone who’s experienced, and been inwardly soothed by the first few flurries of a winter snowfall may experience a similar sense of the hush akin to that moment with Calder’s Snow Flurry I, a series of seemingly vacuous white spheres of varying sizes on wires, suspended against one of Tate’s over-sized, white window shades. Enchanting as the brain, eye reaction to that is, even more so is the realisation that each of the mobiles in these galleries evokes its own emotionally aesthetic atmosphere and response. Vertical Foliage (1941) with its spiralling dark ‘leaves’ in graded levels appearing to tendril and elongate in mid-air. Triple Gongs (1948) gives the illusion of having three staggered suns branching out into a universe of Calder’s own making, in contrast to its other more irregularly shaped components, reflecting the artists abiding interest in the solar system. The sunnier parts of that piece play the added role of reflecting whatever passes.
But the talking point of the entire exhibition, the UK’s largest ever of Alexander Calder’s works, rightfully so, is never before loaned, 3.5 metre Black Widow (1948) a striking, all black, huge, but no less graceful, piece of work which has, doubtless, influenced not just the members of The Institute of Architects in Sao Paolo Brazil, where it’s been hanging since its’ donation by Calder himself, but countless artists the world over. It’s a fine example of Calder’s long held aim of art defining space.
Calder in creative mode was nothing without a sense of playfulness and fun. As such, nothing could replace the experience of seeing this exhibition for yourself, whether you’re a fan or not, as you’re sure to engage with it, fun being the one thing money can’t buy, as The Beatles famously sang and this art embodies. Though I’d come to the exhibition with an assumption that I knew Calder from my Philly days, I was happily, able to expand on that, by acknowledging the limits of former encounters, and revelling at last in the forms and colours slowly fanning out above me in the exhibitions final galleries, not unlike a toddler might when assimilating a lesser facsimile of a mobile from his bed, a reaction the artist, given his childlike exuberance in creating them, would have heartily approved of.
Adult £18.00 (without donation £16.30)
Concession £16.00 (without donation £14.50)