ALEXANDER CALDER – The Magic of a Sculptural Movement

This year, as part of the cycle of exhibitions Greatest Sculptors of the 20th Century, started in the Art Pavilion in Zagreb with an exhibition of Joan Miró, continued in 2015 with a retrospective exhibition of French sculptor Auguste Rodin and after that with a show featuring Switzerland’s Alberto Giacometti, we are presenting ALEXANDER CALDER (1898, Lawnton, Pennsylvania – 1976, New York). At the exhibition Alexander Calder – The Magic of Sculptural Movement, the Art Pavilion is presenting Calder’s mobiles and stabiles.

Calder’s oeuvre focuses on kinetic art, that is, on the form of artistic expression in which movement is the main component of the aesthetic of the art object.

Calder came from a family of famous sculptors; his grandfather and father were both sculptors, and Calder got his first lessons from them. He continued his education through private lessons in painting, and later studied art in New York. However, he also enrolled in a mechanical engineering course (which later turned out to be of crucial importance in the innovation of mobile sculptures). As early as the twenties he was doing his first sculptures in wood, and in 1927 his first moving toys were created. In the late twenties he started making his first wire figures, which dominated the early period of his work. In the Paris of the early thirties, Calder got to know Mondrian, Miró, Arp and Duchamp. He joined the Abstraction-Création Group (1931-1936) and started working on his mobiles, sculptures that were set mechanically in motion. Soon appeared his static monumental abstract constructions that he called stabiles. Calder’s stabiles are a most important part of the history of kineticism and modern art, since they mark the breaking of the links between kineticism and works moved mechanically.

The exhibition in the Art Pavilion is focusing on the part of the sculptor’s career that he dedicated to stabiles and mobiles: to mobiles, carefully balanced constructions that move partially or completely under the influence of the movement of the air, and the abstract constructions called stabiles. In the Art Pavilion are on display those works from the mature Calder´s phase, as it is called, those that give him his global reputation. It is important to point out that Calder’s mobiles and stabiles were prize winners at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and today can be seen not only in the best known world and European museums, but also in public spaces throughout the world.

As well as his sculptures, the exhibition comprehends the painting part of the sculptor’s oeuvre, which is most often closely connected with the three-dimensional part of the work. Twentythree paintings are exhibited.

The exhibition in the Art Pavilion in Zagreb is the first in Croatia and in this part of Europe to present the oeuvre of this globally significant sculptor.

For the exhibition in the Art Pavilion, pictures and sculptures of Alexander Calder are on loan from the most important European museums, such as: the Pompidou Centre (Paris, France); the Tate Modern (London, UK); the Ludwig Museum (Cologne, Germany); the Louisiana Museum (Denmark); the Maeght Foundation (France) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice, Italy).

The exhibition is created, the works are selected and the set up is designed by the director of the Art Pavilion – Jasminka Poklečki Stošić.

Alexander Calder: The Magic of Sculptural Movement

 Alexander Calder is counted amongst the most important sculptors of the 20th century, as a representative of kinetic and abstract art; his mobiles and stabiles are recognisable today worldwide and can be seen in numerous European and world museums, as well as in the public areas of city after city. The exhibition in the Art Pavilion in Zagreb is the first in Croatia and in this part of Europe to present part of the oeuvre of this sculptor, so important in the history of modern art, one of the most significant innovators in the sculpture of the last century. Calder was not the first artist to put sculpture into motion. It had been attempted before in their works by Marcel Duchamp (Rotary Glass Plates, 1920, Bicycle Wheel, 1913), by Alexander Rodchenko (Oval Hanging Construction no. 12, 1919) and Naum Gabo (Kinetic Construction, 1920), but Calder, if we can so put it, was the most thoroughgoing and the most consistent in his experimentation. He was completely dedicated to research into movement in sculpture and devoted almost the whole of his artistic career to the quest. Or as has been astutely explained by art theorist Manfred Schneckenburger: “picking up from the first theoretical attempts of the Futurists, Rodchenko’s reliefs, Duchamp’s rotation, Gabo’s vibrating metal surfaces, Calder was among the first to raise mobility and variability to an aesthetic category, which he employed as the leitmotif of his art and instilled into it a distinctive poetry and universal symbolism”.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Calder introduced mechanical movement into his works. He created sculptures of wood and iron, some of which could be put in motion manually, some with motors. Of value to him were his studies at the Art Students League in New York, where he took classes with Ashcan artist and excelled in single-line drawing. He showed the first mobiles in April 1932 in the Vignon Gallery, Paris. The exhibition was entitled Calder: ses mobiles, and featured thirty sculptures, fifteen of them motorised, while the remaining fifteen were set in motion naturally, without a motor. The exhibition was initiated by Marcel Duchamp, who dubbed Calder’s moving sculptures mobiles.  After 1932, Alexander Calder concentrated increasingly on having his mobiles work in a natural way, impelled by the wind and air currents, abandoning, that is, mechanical impulses. Art historians who have studied his oeuvre and written of him have observed that the author on occasion made his artistic expression humorous, his spontaneity and his unpredictability coming to the fore. It was in fact the lively aspect of the sculptur’s art that gave a special note, first of all to his mobiles and then to his stabiles. Calder’s mobiles and stabiles were largely abstract, but some were inspired by animals, and he gave these works names like Elephant, Crinkly Crocodile, and so on. But even at the beginning of his artistic career, even before his mobiles and stabiles, Calder evinced his ingenious nature with the action and anticipation of his Cirque Calder (1926 – 1931, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), a work on the basis of which we might in a way place Calder as a forerunner of performance art.

Calder, as we know, also did his stabiles – fixed constructions made of sheet metal puttogether with screws and rivets. The name stabiles was given to Calder’s static sculptures bythe sculptor Hans Arp (or Jean Arp). What sets the mobiles and the stabiles apart is strength– while the stabiles give the impression of power and strength, dominating the space theyinhabit, whether interior or exterior, like giants, the mobiles are conversely gentle and fragile.What conjoins them is the sculptor’s inspiration in their creation – he was inspired in thecreation of one and the other by unseen forces of nature. One more link that joins them isthat with which the author dealt the major part of his life – movement. While the movementin the mobiles is patent, for the sculptor’s intention in creating them was that they move, the stabiles seem, at the same time, to be firmly anchored, static sculptures. The truth is different however, for instinct to both of them is movement, they imply motion, inviting the visitor to the museum or the observer in some pubic space, to pass through them, to go around them, to see them from all sides. It is in these movements, the movements of the observer, that the motion of the stabiles is created.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that Calder’s fascination with the circus – that came to him “on assignment”, for while working as illustrator for the National Police Gazette in New York in 1925 he had to draw several acts of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey travelling circus – was the impulse behind not only one of his emblematic works, Cirque Calder, but also the mainspring of the whole of his artistic magic. For how on earth otherwise can the gigantic stabiles, several metres tall and weighing several tons, be put in motion than by the magic of a magician!

Text: Jasminka Poklečki Stošić, exhibition curator

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