I recently went to the Tate Modern show on Calder’s early/mid years: 1940s/50s/60s.
The wire portraits were exquisite – how can anyone be so assured with wire, to put a kink at the perfect point, never wavering with distances and relationships, curving delicately or with knots, always elegant and true. Conjuring a solid form from wire and air, capturing Fernand Leger’s face – the curve of the nose, the scratchy moustache. Drawings leaping off the page like you wanted to happen when you were younger. There is a youthful vigour to all the works in fact, even the more abstract ones.
It’s said that the mighty Einstein stood for 40 minutes in front of “A Universe” in 1934, waiting for it to complete its mechanised cycle 90 times before repetition. This sculpture isn’t in the show but it brings me to my main problem with the show: the lack of animation in the kinetic creations. Of course they are all very old and delicate, but it would have been so good to see the sculptures breathe a bit, stretch their wings, even take off. Some highly suspended ones did catch an air current and slowly gyrate, but only as old folks taking a stroll – we needed more movement.
The power of the forms and relationships of colour and shape was almost enough however, so it was still a great show, but a muted one. I felt as if the toys were out of the box but not plugged in (often the literal case). But not all toys need to be plugged in and many of the mobiles trembled with enough potential energy to satisfy on a deep level – the shapes were deeply satisfying, akin to the organic concretions of Hans Arp. He worked at the same time but to my knowledge not with the kinetically animated dimension. His work seems more concerned with the three dimensional form in flexible and fluid solids – also moving but more in the mind.
Growth, Arp, 1935, plaster
Some of the mobiles are floor mounted, so there is an element of static movement to them, the sense of an enlarged photographic frozen moment. This is another sign of Calder’s ability to give solid form to imagined movement. He said of it: “I was interested in the the extremely delicate, open composition.” He noted that”it was a very weird sensation I experienced, looking at a show of mine where nothing moved.”
Constellation, 1943, Calder Foundation, New York
I think my response to this show was similar to that – it’s a great exhibition of masterful manipulations of material but can’t quite capture that original joy of sublime time and motion. I wish I’d been there then.