On Wednesday, the major exhibition Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture opened at Tate Modern. The American sculptor remains one of the most recognisable figures in modern art as the originator of the ‘mobile’, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp for Calder’s dynamic sculptures, typically composed in painted sheet metal and wire and suspended elegantly in the air. Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture will show until 3 April 2016.
Sculpture was the major part of Alexander Calder’s life (1898-1976) from a young age: his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, who had emigrated from Scotland to the United States, and his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, were both prominent public sculptors in Philadelphia, while his mother was a professional portrait artist who had studied at the Académie Julian and the Sorbonne. As his family moved between New York and California across his youth, Calder was always afforded his own studio space and the tools with which to create.
Encouraged to learn a trade, he trained in mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken between 1915 and 1919, but by his mid-twenties Calder was set on becoming an artist. He enrolled first at the Art Students League of New York, and while studying worked for the National Police Gazette as an illustrator, covering sporting events and performances by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1926, he moved to Paris and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, soon after his arrival constructing the Cirque Calder.
Made of wire, and found objects including pieces of wood, cloth, rubber, and string, with small models rigged to perform the various roles of the circus, the Cirque Calder brought the fledgling artist to the attention of the Parisian avant-garde. Alongside more conventional works in bronze, he continued to experiment with wire sculpture, which he referred to as ‘drawing in space’, crafting portraits of friends, animals, and celebrities including his Aztec Josephine Baker. He befriended Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Fernand Léger, and also met his future wife, Louisa James, the grandniece of the novelist Henry and the philosopher William.
In 1927 Calder was given his first solo exhibition at the gallery of Jacques Seligmann & Company in Paris, while his wire sculptures were showcased the following year during a solo exhibition at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. In October 1930, a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian encouraged Calder to embrace abstraction. He began to cultivate his ‘mobiles’, kinetic sculptures which were at first powered by motors, but soon became delicately balanced hanging compositions responding to air currents, light, humidity, and human touch. At the same time he undertook work on outdoor projects, and created stationary abstract sculptures which Jean Arp dubbed ‘stabiles’ in response to Duchamp.
At the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris, Calder’s Mercury Fountain – a fountain in iron and aluminium which pumped mercury instead of water – was commissioned for the Spanish pavilion alongside Pablo Picasso’s Guernica Jean Miró’s The Reaper. The same year Devil Fish became Calder’s first stabile enlarged from a model. And in 1939, another commission saw Lobster Trap and Fish Tail – an early hanging mobile in painted steel wire and sheet aluminium – take up position in the main stairwell of the new Museum of Modern Art.
Calder’s first career retrospective commenced in 1938 at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. Then in 1943, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney, proved so popular it had to be extended into 1944. World War II and a shortage of aluminium saw Calder briefly turn to carving in wood, while after the war in 1946, a major exhibition at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris was accompanied by a seminal catalogue essay from Jean-Paul Sartre. Successful exhibitions in Brazil followed, and in 1952, Calder represented the United States in winning the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale.
Beyond sculpture, Calder – who drew inspiration from Martha Graham, the pioneer of modern dance – designed the stage sets for several theatrical productions, including Erik Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate in 1936. Described by Calder as an ‘indication of a good deal of my subsequent work’, he was in the process of reviving this mobile set for a performance in New York at the time of his death. Calder was also a prolific painter, illustrator, and printmaker, and a jeweller, predominantly in brass and steel, with many of his pieces gifted to friends. In 1952 he contributed a mural to the pool wall of Stillman House; in 1953 he designed an acoustic ceiling for the Aula Magna auditorium at Universidad Central de Venezuela; and in the 1970s, he was commissioned to paint a Douglas DC-8-62 jet liner and a BMW 3.0 CSL automobile.
In his later years Calder travelled extensively, to the Middle East, India, and South America between stays in France, painted gouaches, and increasingly devoted his sculpture towards monumental public projects. In 1958 he created Spirale, a mobile sculpture in black steel for Maison de l’UNESCO in Paris. Teodelapio, a stabile in painted steel over 58 feet tall, was produced for the 1962 Spoleto Festival in Italy; Trois disques (Man) for the 1967 exposition in Montreal; and El Sol Rojo for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. On into the 1970s, Calder devised a series of works in red painted steel, including Bent Propeller, installed at the World Trade Center in 1970 and remaining there until it was destroyed during the September 11 attacks. Calder died in New York in 1976 at the age of seventy-eight.
Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture continues the Tate’s series of reassessments of the key figures in modernism. It follows Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World which closed at Tate Britain at the end of October. Curated by Ann Coxon, bringing together major works from across the extent of Calder’s career, and demonstrating his collaborative nature in the fields of theatre, music and dance, the exhibition will show 100 works, including the largest ever gathering of mobiles from New York, Paris, and Brazil.