Alexander Calder at Tate: Balancing Science and Art

As a cultural professional working in a research-intensive university, I’m keenly interested in the interplay between arts and sciences: How can artistic creativity inspire scientific problem solving? How can we use art to articulate scientific principles and discoveries? How can scientific techniques inform new modes are artistic representation? How do we balance the abstract with the concrete? It is from this perspective that I found Tate Modern’s exhibition Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture enjoyably absorbing.

Before Calder was a famous modernist sculptor, he was a ‘maker.’ According to the Calder Foundation biography, Alexander started making things at age 8. Calder recalls learning how to build a wigwam from a burlap sack pinned together with nails at this age. His parents encouraged his making practice, giving him space in the basement for a workshop and gifting him tools on birthdays and special occasions. He mostly built toys for his sister and parents from wire and other scraps he found. His fascination with making evolved into an interest in engineering and he eventually earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked in the field for several years and clearly had a passion for solving problems. For instance, he wrote a letter to the Kellogg cereal company proposing that it put the wax paper wrapping on the outside of the box on the outside instead. The idea was accepted with a ‘thank you’ note from the owner and immediately implemented. Kellogg’s cereals boxes are still being produced this way today. However, Calder was not completely satisfied with being an engineer and with the encouragement of a friend, decided to study art.

As an artist, Calder started his career as a painter. He eventually, however, drifted back into wire working and toy production. His first wire work melded together all his areas of artistic and scientific interest and expertise – a sundial in the form of a rooster on a vertical rod with radiating lines at the foot to indicate the time. It is this type of work, not his canvas paintings, that gets him noticed. While living in France he creates Cirque Calder (1926) which is a set of mechanized sculptures that reenact a circus performance. In addition, influenced by jazz and the music of the time, he composes wire sculptures entitled Josephine Baker (1927) and Struttin’ His Stuff (1927). At this point, Calder’s career took off. He was profiled in international newspapers and presented his wire works and toys in shows and exhibitions in the US and Europe. Over his lifetime, his worked evolved from delicate wire sculptures to floating mobiles to large scale metal abstract outdoor sculptures. The Tate exhibition features works from all these periods. See a carousel of images from the exhibition here.

What I enjoy most about Calder is his sense of humor and down to earth-ness. Anyone who sees the wire circus figures from he early years can tell Calder was a joker. And as his ‘jokes’ started to be recognized by the art world, he didn’t start to take himself too seriously. In a 1929 statement (recipient unknown), he states: ‘At that time (last Spring) I did not consider this medium to be of any [significant] importance in the world of art; merely a very amusing stunt cleverly executed.’ However, there was something behind the clever engineering that was moving artistic representation forward. Drawing on his schooling in art, he states: “There is one thing, in particular, which connects them with history. One of the canons of the futuristic painters, as propounded by Modigliani, was that objects behind other objects should not be lost to view, but should be shown through the others by making the latter transparent. The wire sculpture accomplishes this in a most decided manner.”

Calder represents all that is good about bringing science and art together. His light, delicate dancing mobiles spur conversation about balance, equilibrium, and kinetic energy. His use of traditional industrial materials and techniques created a new form of artistic representation that blurred that lines between 2D and 3D works by embedding movement into solid materials. He also negotiated between the abstract and the concrete. There was just enough detail in his wire sculpture to communicate the punch line of the joke, no more, no less. His floaty mobiles are comprised of a series of abstract shapes connected by wire, but when they move they give the distinct impression of birds flying or trees rustling or bees fluttering.

Calder is quoted as saying: “The universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it.” This is where science and creativity come together.

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