Alexander Calder

This review of Alexander Calder at Tate Modern appeared in Flash Art International:


One may wince at the chosen subtitle — “Performing Sculpture” — of this otherwise well-judged exhibition tracing Alexander Calder’s progression from the figurative to the abstract, or, as Penelope Curtis aptly puts it in her essay for the accompanying publication, “from sculpture depicting performers, to sculpture that performs.” The show’s curators likewise do not shy away from anachronism, projecting our highly contemporary infatuation with all things performative onto inanimate sculptural objects that, however “mobile” (a term Marcel Duchamp coined in 1931 to characterize Calder’s motorized abstract sculptures), do not “perform” except in a manner of speaking.

That’s not to deny Calder’s love of spectacle and sustained interest in the performing arts, starting with popular forms of entertainment like the circus and cabaret, which inspired the delightful wired effigies of lion tamers, acrobats and celebrities such as Josephine Baker, as well as the portable Calder’s Circus (1926–31) animated by the artist himself. He also frequently collaborated with avant-garde choreographers and composers, including Martha Graham, Edgar Varèse and Earle Brown, whose 1967 Calder Piece for four percussionists, which takes cues from the Calder-designed mobile Chef d’orchestre (1966), was performed inside the Turbine Hall on three occasions during the opening week of the exhibition.

That these should be the only live events staged alongside an exhibition so keen to emphasize the performative aspects of Calder’s output is in some ways unfortunate, especially given that so many of the works that the artist had intended to move, such as the framed mobiles fitted with handmade mechanical devices or the Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932–33) in which a small white ball successively strikes different sound-producing objects arranged on a low plinth, are too fragile to be activated; to get a sense of how they would have worked, the visitor is reliant on videos placed besides the lifeless objects — a poor substitute for actual movement.

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