As a lazy man once said, I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. Beyond the usual pretty stuff – Rodin, Klimt, Miro – I love art that’s witty, not pretentious, occasionally humorous, and with a good back story. Enter Alexander Calder.
I hadn’t heard of him before I went to New York, but once there I bumped into his work so many times we must be meant to be. First I stumbled into an exhibition of his jewellery at the Met. They weren’t your average baubles – no gold or jewels here. Calder used brass wire, curled into spirals, hammered into flat shapes, making spiky necklaces and head-dresses. I would later learn that this is Calder to a tee- using simple, everyday materials to make quirky yet beautiful and functional pieces. One lovely piece was a brooch called “V For Victory” – designed in 1944 to celebrate the end of the war, it was modelled around the morse code.
A few days later I discovered a Calder retrospective at the Whitney, a gallery that specialises in American art. Here I saw some of the abstract “mobiles” he’s famous for. But what I found most interesting, and the exhibition was beautifully curated to tease this out, was his creative evolution to that point.
The exhibition focused on “The Paris Years”, where he went to study and work on his art in the late 1920s, aged around 28. Prior to that he had become quite well known for his cartoons and sketches – beautifully vivid linework devastating in its simplicity. There were lively ink and watercolour sketches of various animals at the Bronx Zoo – Calder actually put out a book for children with tips for how to draw animals. His parents were both artists, and though he showed talent and inclination as a child – making toys and “valentines” for his parents, as well as drawing – they encouraged him to complete his studies as a mechanical engineer.
Before he went to Paris he was regularly published in The New Yorker and other publications with his idiosyncratic impressions of city life, Central Park, and his lifelong obsession: the circus.
When he got to France, Calder started making his wire 3D caricatures of people. The shadows they cast add another dimenson.
He was particularly enamoured of the exotic Negress performer Josephine Baker, making about five full sculptures of her – although apparently at the time all of Paris was obsessed with her. Something to do with her penchant for topless Charleston-dancing perhaps?!
At the time he was regularly moving between Paris and New York. There is a proliferation of drawings and sculptures from this time, caricatures of notable people, but mostly animals and circus acts. With a bit of a performer’s streak himself, Calder was not satisfied merely with vividness – he wanted actual movement. And so he created his circus figurines, with mechanisms and puppet-like cues, and began to perform with them. He took his circus back to the US regularly and soon his props and the equipment for their maintenance filled five large trunks.
I couldn’t take photos and didn’t dare try to draw his works, but they were unspeakably lifelike despite their simplicity. The exact curve of a horse’s neck, or a monkey’s tail. And witty too – a cow sculpture had a spiral wire cowpat in its wake, while “pigs” showed the boar mounting the sow and a baby piglet formed inside her belly!
Anyway – after visiting Piet Mondrian’s studio a few years later, Calder suddenly “got” the concept of abstraction in a blinding flash of inspiration. He rushed out a series of drawings, floating disconnected objects and lines in space, and set about making them into sculptures.
Again, the concept movement in space drove him, and many of these sculptures included motors to facilitate movement. The “mobile” was his breakthrough – weighted objects suspended from the ceiling, that needed only the slightest breeze or push to set them in motion.
My favourite was just a small ball and a larger iron ball suspended on wire from the ceiling, with a scattering of glass bottles, tin cans, wooden crates and a small gong around it in a circle on the floor. The sculpture swayed slightly in the air, the small ball ever tantalisingly close to knocking into something. Because, drawing on that circus performer’s instinct, the piece was all about anticipation. Most magical of all was that a guy would come in periodically with what looked like a huge cotton swab, to poke the mobile ever so gently and make it dance! What an awesome job.
I’m struggling to put it into words here but I just loved the sense of Calder as this guy so enthusiastic about life, the world, art, performance. He saw the world around him, loved it, and made all his glorious miniature homages. Saw the elegant simplicity in nature, drew it without lifting his pen from the page, and transferred that confident, unerring design aesthetic into sculpture, performance and craft.