Tricks and gimmicks or a fantastic balance in motion?

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, Tate Modern

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture at the Tate Modern is a towering display of acrobatic sculpture defying gravity, defying expectations. Born in 1898 in Pennsylvania to a family of sculptors and painters, Calder went on to study mechanical engineering in New Jersey. His resulting sculpture is an extraordinary fusion of mechanics, motion and modernity.

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Alexander Calder

Like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass,’ the transparency of Calder’s wire sculptures engages them in the oscillating backdrop of modernity. Not only do we look through the spaces of the sculptures and reflect on the modern world behind it, the sculptures embody the flux of the modern world: they are never static.

The first and second rooms exhibited these so called ‘portraits in air’ and explored the ‘Cirque Calder’ created in Paris in 1926. He expressed his interest in the circus in terms of precision and poise:

“It wasn’t the daring mess of the performers, not the tricks and gimmicks, it was the fantastic balance in motion that the performers exhibited.”

Just as the ringmaster leads his circus, Calder choreographed his company of delicate dancers, swirling elephants and soaring acrobats. His walked a tightrope between the modernist childlike simplicity in the continuous-line drawing style of the wires and the sophisticated exactitude required to balance the sculptures.

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Alexander Calder

The ‘Cirque Calder’ was attended by Piet Mondrian. Calder’s subsequent visit to Mondrian’s studio marked his first serious encounter with abstraction. He compared his shock to a baby “being slapped to make its lungs start working.” The abstract art he exhaled is bound up in the work of Mondrian yet expresses his unique interest in mobility.

Following the room displaying his motorised sculpture, which embodied the processes implied by Futurists and Cubists, was the display of hanging sculptures with Neoplastic, vivid canvases behind. These pieces have not been on public view for decades and the combined canvases and sculptures have never before been displayed together. The shadows of rotating spheres became fixed two-dimensional forms intersecting with
coloured cubes and geometrical forms, interlocking three dimensional and two dimensional spaces.

In 1933 Calder moved to Connecticut. It was from here that his most beautiful works grew.Metals spines support sinuous shapes which extend out to form snow flurries and rustling foliage. Our journey through these rooms simulates a breeze drifting through a forest, creating the motion of the leaves, the flight of the birds. I love the way that the sculptures react to our presence in their subtle movement.

The final room displayed the largest of his hanging sculptures measuring 2.5m by 3m. Spinning her web from the Institute of Architects of Brazil for over fifty years, it is the first time that ‘Black Widow’ has been loaned. Symbolising a new and free social order, Calder gave it to the institute when travelling and working in Brazil. He had subsequent influence
on several Brazilian artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oitica. Like Emily Dickinson who wrote described “the spider as an artist,” Calder allows the spider, the sculptor of the glistening gossamer web, to become the sculpture: delicate and ethereal.
We have until 3rd April 2016 to visit and revisit this incredible retrospective at Tate Modern, so don’t miss the opportunity to learn of and experience Alexander Calder.

Written by guest blogger Charlotte Lorimer (Durham University).


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