To Move, To Stir, To Oscillate | Alexander Calder at the Tate Modern

Half-way through the Alexander Calder exhibition, an elderly woman inspecting a sculpture suddenly turned to the guide. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘isn’t it moving?’ It’s a reasonable question.
Calder is the father of mobile sculpture, creating fantastic, ambulatory shapes. Born to a sculptor father and artist mother in Pennsylvania, he studied mechanical engineering as a young man. The Tate has beautifully documented how the artist’s early concern with locomotion evolved, from tightrope walkers to celestial bodies.

The exhibition begins with Calder’s wire works, many of the sculptures dangling from the ceiling. The airiness suits the fine twisting lines of metal, all fluidity and implied motion. Hercules and Lion, one of the larger pieces, gives some sense of Calder’s unique approach to perspective. The unfilled frame of wires allows different shapes to emerge as the sculpture turns, reflected in the shadows on the wall. Chance and irregularity rather than realism are what make the structure lifelike. Like so much of Calder’s work, the sculpture conveys many images at once, lending it a sense of self-contained liveliness.

The preoccupation with geometry, space, and shape continues in the next room. There are portraits of faces and bodies suspended in the air. The pieces have a tactile, toy-like quality, that often skates close caricature. This is particularly true of Aztec Josephine Baker and Calder’s friends, Fernand Léger and Joan Miró. Calder’s art is a rude compendium of hats, moustaches, and astonishing eyebrows. There are ‘O’-shaped breasts and dangling cocks, the occasional wiry fuzz of armpit hair. It’s childish in the best sense.

Playful is a word that comes up frequently in descriptions of Calder’s work. And it’s easy to see why. Calder was clearly enchanted by the circus. Moving to Paris in 1926, he ran The
‘Cirque Calder,’ attracting an audience of modernist artists with his miniatures of strongmen and tightrope walkers. The Tate has included a video of the original circus, the artist’s hands manipulating the wire figurines. There is no attempt at illusion, instead the magic is in the tension and excitement of bodies in motion.

There is a similar easy appeal in the sculptures of acrobats. Calder has managed to impart the same mixture of fragility and strength as real circus performers. An acrobat delicately balances on the stomach of her partner, feet in the air, and ruffled wire tutu fanning out around her middle. It is wonderful and silly, more confident in its humour than many serious pieces manage to be.
Calder’s work dramatically changed direction with a visit to Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930. Why, Calder asked, couldn’t the artist’s cardboard shapes be made to move? Mondrian, perhaps understandably, didn’t take the suggestion well and Calder was left to make the attempt himself, veering off into abstraction. He produced a number of small minimalist sculptures with clearly displayed mechanical parts. There are wooden boxes, wire coils, and mysterious floating spheres.

None of them were moving. I accosted the same patient guide as the elderly woman. The mechanics still run, he tells me, but they are delicate. Without the artist’s consent, the gallery chose not to potentially degrade the mechanism.

Given that Calder died in 1976, it is unlikely he’ll manage to give consent any time soon. Which is a pity. There is a rickety charm to some of the pieces, like riffling through an antique shop and playing ‘guess what this was for’ but the overall effect is stilted. The museum guide has clearly had this conversation before and it’s not difficult to understand people’s confusion. One piece in particular, a black box with two white spheres, looks dilapidated and unnecessary.

By contrast, the adjacent space is filled with bulbous, colourful forms. Large hanging shapes, dangle precariously in front of vivid boards. Less graceful than the wire work, the pieces are evidence of Calder’s growing interest in free movement. The next room with sculptures resembling models of the universe even more so. Here the movement is all in the imagination, implied by the relation of disparate parts. “It was a very weird sensation I experienced, looking at a show of mine where nothing moved,” Calder said.

He didn’t manage to resist the allure of movement long. The final room is filled with hanging sculptures, like gorgeous and outlandish wind chimes. Their parts are reminiscent of natural shapes, bone, snowflakes, and leaves. Several were moving in a lucky draft from the air vent. Ruffling in the breeze, Gamma from 1946, made up of brightly coloured circles, looked far more attached to the natural world. The sculptural asymmetry lent an organic quality to each individual movement, some ponderous, some delicate.

The largest piece, Black Widow was a suitable finale, with iterative black panels, descending smoothly from large sections to small. The irregular composition of the jointing maintains a self-contained energy. At the same time there is a calm satisfaction to the well-balanced structure, like finding a perfectly round stone or fitting the last piece of a complicated puzzle. Black Widow is a reminder that Calder’s consideration of movement in relation to geometry can, at its best, make unpredictability harmonious.

Less successful is the adjacent Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, which occupies an entire room. A small white ball is intended to move through an arrangement of bottles, box, and  gong, clattering against objects at random. Instead it hangs limply in the air. There is a palpable sense of delayed movement, like a child’s toy that won’t run. It’s a problem that undermines an otherwise beautifully orchestrated exhibition. While the Tate’s decision is understandable, it seems like preservation at the expense of purpose. Calder built sculptures to move and watching them remain politely still is, as he said, a very weird sensation.

©Images: Nathan Borror