In January, the much-anticipated exhibition “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form – Balance – Joy” opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. At Carolina Meadows, residents had an opportunity to hear Sarah Schroth, the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator of the Nasher Museum, when she presented an introduction to the Calder show. She provided a background for the impressive variety of talents of this popular artist and the points of departure he has offered to a group of young artists.
We know when artists have made it among the larger public when their art becomes commercialized in cheap reproductions. Slowly moving, suspended contraptions are a familiar sight in teenage rooms or over baby cribs, and Calder’s name has become more or less synonymous with the mobile concept.
There is two-dimensional and three-dimensional art. One could say that Calder created four-dimensional art with the invention of the mobile, because it requires time to show off its diversity of forms when it slowly changes its balance and dimensions before our very eyes.
Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976) was born in Philadelphia as the son and grandson of two very successful sculptors: Alexander Milne Calder (he of the William Penn statue on Philadelphia’s Town Hall) and Alexander Sterling Calder. His mother was the portrait painter Nanette Lederer. In this environment it was not surprising that a variety of his talents blossomed. Initially he showed an interest in engineering, but being an arch tinkerer with a much larger range of interests, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, where he tested his talents in drawing and illustrating. On assignment at the Ringling Brothers Circus to do some sketching, he turned into a lifelong fan of the circus.
In 1925, he moved to Paris, at that time a hotbed of avant-garde art with artists’ names like Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. It was during this period that he created his famous ”Cirque Calder”, an assembly of diminutive animals made out of wire, fabric and leather, which could be manipulated. Initially, some of these creatures were mechanically propelled, but the suspension in air of leaf-like objects as observed in nature shifted his interests to other kinetic experiments. The free-floating, delicately balanced objects that Calder subsequently created led Marcel Duchamp to coin the term “mobile,” a term which stuck.
Back in the United States, Calder started to focus on progressively larger objects made of metal and in need of anchoring. These artworks were usually executed in a solid black, white, yellow or red color. It was Joan Miro who gave this type of sculpture the name “stabile.”
In the meantime, Calder’s creativity spilled over in other areas such as stage sets, jewelry and book design. When in World War II metal became scarce, he resorted to wood and found objects to create sculptural works.
Small wonder that so many young sculptors have taken Calder as their lode star. The Nasher exhibition shows, in addition to a small, representative selection of Calder’s sculptures, samples of works by seven artists, five of them from the United States, who more or less successfully took off from where Calder had led them.
Extensions of the Calder exhibition were the showing of the 1955 film “Cirque Calder,” the Carolina Ballet Performances of a newly created ballet based on Calder’s work, the lectures and slide shows given at the Nasher Museum and a “Balance and Beer” bash at the Fulsteam Brewery where participants could live out their own Calder fantasies constructing mobiles from loose parts.
The Calder exhibition will close June 17, 2012.
By Jonny Prins