"Making art and being an artist is a philosophical task than merely producing objects."
© Alexander Calder with Calder Circus, still image from Carlos Vilardebo's 1961 film of Alexander Calder's "circus". Courtesy of Fondation Calder.
I am standing next to the exit, leaning against the wall. In front of me is a slightly raised white platform on which stand four installations-sculptures of the great American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976), all dated between 1932 and 1933. The man who guided me in to Galerie 2 on the 6th floor of Pompidou Centre is now sitting on the edge of the platform, taking off his shoes. People around us start to be alerted by this strange act. But this man in blue shirt and beige jacket looks too sane to do any harm. He moves slowly towards the installation next to him which is also the last piece of work on show. The crowd starts to circle in.
"Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere" is the name given to this constellation of a wooden box, two glass jags, a tin, three wine bottles and a small gong. At the centre of this collection of objects-rescued-from-rubbish-bin is a wire hanging down from the ceiling with a rod at the end. At each side of the rod is a cord which holds respectively a small white ball and a bigger red ball. With a ritual, almost sacred mood, the man holds the red ball in his hand then gently lets it go. The two balls start to swing back and forth in opposite direction. The red ball soon stops and the white ball continues to oscillate in a hypnotic rhythm until it hits one of the wine bottles. A clear, crisp sound fills in the space and the small ball changes its trajectory.
My eyes follow closely the back and forth of the white ball, hoping that it would hit another object. Yet, time and again, it glides by the sides of the objects and dives into the emptiness. The air is getting hot and the museum unusually quiet. I hold my breath, feeling this moment of suspension stretching and stretching as the white ball keeps its aimless swinging governed only by its intrinsic law of gravity. As if in a twist of fate, the white ball hits at the edge of the gong and gets trapped between the structure and the bronze surface. The cord slides in-between with an effort to get out of the predicament. The man observes the situation with great intensity; hesitates… tic tac tic tac… He walks towards the installation and set it free. The white ball resumes its wander and this time, entertaining enough, it hits several objects, composing a piece of melodic music and slows down. Relieved. I wonder, did interactive sculpture exist before Calder?
©Alexander Calder, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, 1932-1933, Fer, bois, cordes, tiges et objets divers, H. 317,5 cm (dimensions variables) New York, Calder Foundation.
The beauty of this work resides in its mobility, musicality, interactivity and simplicity. Shown in a museum, however, it is doomed to be static, which is not the purpose of the artist. Thanks to this demonstration that we can see it alive. Once it starts to move, the intensity of emotion provoked in the audience is more captivating than the visual pleasure it generates. Like an addicted gambler, the craving for a melodic sound intensified only by its suspense. When it finally hits the target, you shot “yes!” and you have the illusion of having magical power over the sheer law of chance happening. The game is equally frustrating and fulfilling.
The installation is among the last group in the huge corpus of work Calder produced during his Paris years from 1926 to 1933. Calder was already at the peak of his “mobile sculpture” when this installation was created. Constructed by simple compositions of linear or circular wires, discs and spheres with a minimalist colour scheme of black, white and red, Calder introduced to the world this new form of sculpture embodying movement and later motorized movement. Among the series of mobile sculptures in the room before the exit, I like in particular Little Ball with Counterweight (1931). On a light metal plat placed in an off-balance position a white ball from which grow two thin wires, one upward with a tiny red ball at the end, the other bends downward in a semi-circle with a black ball at the end. The whole structure is then posed at the tip of a steep hollow pyramid made of wire. As the title indicates, this sculpture is a wonderful example of Calder’s acrobatic equilibrium. Either posed on platform or suspended from ceiling, these mobile sculptures exhale a graceful lightness and delicate balance. Sometimes they will move or turn slightly in the air; the serenity of the movement gives you the impression of a comet wandering in its cosmic orbit.
©Alexander Calder, Little Ball with Counterweight, vers 1931, Feuille de métal peint, fil de fer et bois1613 x 356 x 356 cm, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Promised 50th Anniversary Gift, of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard J. Horwich, © 2008 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Calder did not only draw three dimensional space but he actually drew in three dimensional space. His wire sculptures are the linear structures with suggestive volume, light and minimalist. The portraits he made for Joan Miro, Fernand Léger, Michel Tapié, Kiki de Montparnasse, etc. are executed with great economy of lines. The black wires were his brush and ink, the twisting and bending movements equal to the scribbling in the air. On display, they are suspended from the ceiling in constant float and turn to give audience a 360 degree viewing. The shadow casted on the wall becomes part of the work itself, and from it, we see the profiles of a face from many different angles.Calder has a great sense of humor and he likes to share his light-hearted jokes with his audience. For example, in a sculpture dated 1929, we see a cow with a peculiar coil attached to its bottom. There is a little handle which you can rotate it and you will see the cow shitting! Gorgeous! In a later wire sculpture depicting a male pig penetrating a female pig, we see inside the female pig’s body a baby pig hanging at the end of the “penis”. Oh, reproductive system explained to kids!
Alexander Clader, Cirque Calder, 1926-1931, Photos 04-09. Various materials: wire, wood, metal, fabric, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber bands, cork, buttons, sequins, bolts, nails, bottle caps , 137. 2 x 239 .4 x 239 .4 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchased with funds from a public fundraising campaign in May 1982. Photo © Whitney Museum of American Art. Alexander Calder © 2008 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Yet, the best illustration of Calder’s humour is his circus. From 1926 to 1931, he has created over a hundred characters and another hundred pieces of props for his circus. Now, all the items are arranged in an open circus and simultaneously on stage. Calder likes to invite his friends to his Grand Cirque Calder which takes place at home. But there is one condition – you have to bring your own chair! Therefore, we see Miró, Cocteau, Man Ray, Léger, Mondrian and more sitting on wine cases, bins, blocks of wood. Calder arrives on stage. Sitting on the floor, he opens his two suit cases and he builds his stage with rugs: here is the curtain, here are the wings, here is the stage floor. The whistle is essential; Monsieur Loyal in tuxedo is ready at the stage centre, he beeps and announces in a low voice, “Madame, Monsieur, je vous présente le Cirque Calder”. Then, one by one, the acrobats performed their tasks. All the movements are controlled by a mechanic system, Calder pulls the strings and the puppets will do their jobs. Sometimes it was wonderfully neat; sometimes they are just too stupid and got killed. Should such an unfortunately accident happen, Calder would just casually wrap their corpses with a rug and put them aside. The film of Jean Painlevé in 1955 is shown in the first room, right opposite the entrance. It’s also the spot where the visitors spend most of their time enjoying Calder’s performance.
(With special thanks to Sandy Rower)
Alexander Calder – les années parisiennes 1926 – 1933
18 March – 20 July 2009