Upwardly mobile

For many visitors, the most vivid memory of last October’s inaugural Frieze Masters in London was the battle of the Calders. Pace Gallery showed a two-metre mobile of darting kite-like forms, fresh from the Calder Foundation and dated 1945, a key year for the artist. That work, though, was trumped by the Helly Nahmad Gallery’s car-size Calder, “Rouge Triomphant”, a simplified late piece whose giant metal leaves swung to the accompaniment of samba music. Both pieces were priced at around $20m.

Now Pace returns to the fray with what promises to be one of this year’s most exhilarating exhibitions, Calder After the War, a museum-quality show of several dozen mobiles, stabiles and standing sculptures, plus paintings demonstrating the development of Alexander Calder’s imagery and ideas.

It is a feel-good show, full of personal connections – including family pieces such as “Louisa’s 43rd Birthday Present”, a group of miniature mobiles exhibited with the cigar box in which Calder gave them to his wife. But it is scholarly too, exploring how the period 1945-49 was defining for Calder’s art and reputation.

A Calder exhibition is a fantastically unpredictable affair. The elegant lines and free-floating shapes of his works sway, quiver, swoop and interact one with another randomly, in accordance with the air movements. Assembling many masterpieces, Pace is orchestrating opportunities for these chance encounters of twisted wire and cut metal.

In “Red Ghost”, created to dangle from a chandelier in a Greenwich Village apartment, there is a red biomorphic shape with an eye peering out, wittily offset by a mask-face. Then there’s the cascade of buoyant white discs of “Snow Flurry”, inspired by a blizzard at Calder’s home in Connecticut. The delicate forms of “Aspen” resemble blossoms and drooping catkins, recalling Marcel Duchamp’s praise that “Calder’s art is the sublimation of a tree in the wind”. Small hammers stroke the metallic plates of “Triple Gong” as the sculpture spins, while in “Little Parasite”, one of Calder’s favourites, a black perforated disc is cheekily suspended, as if hanging mid-air, on a majestic looping wire.

Alexander Calder’s ‘Blue Feather’ (c1948)

Calder always looks good alongside his friend Joan Miró: the paintings here, dominated by biomorphic forms in warm colours and constellation motifs, tease out affinities between the artists. Calder’s canvas “Somnambulist” contains the sphere and crescent recurring in his sculptures; the excellent exhibition catalogue traces his “cosmic epiphany” to a sea journey where, off the coast of Guatemala, he saw “the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other”.

The artist’s underlying sense of structure became “the system of the universe,” he once said. “What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities ... some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.”

Nonetheless, it took a decade in Paris for Calder to refine these ideas. His breakthrough came when visiting Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930. “How fine it would be if everything moved,” he thought. Then, “Why must art be static? You look at an abstraction, sculpted or painted, an entirely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect but it is always still. The next step is sculpture in motion.”

The rise of Nazism sent Calder back to the US – he was born in Pennsylvania in 1898, son and grandson of sculptors. An engineer by training, he had already begun working with wire and sheet metal but supplies were short during the second world war and it was not until 1945 that he was able to develop sculptural abstraction – pierced planes, interpenetrating geometric forms – at monumental scale.

The interconnected lines of “Blue Feather” suggest wings, wind and soaring – an abstraction of flight. The standing piece “Baby Flat Top” incorporates five mobiles, each with differing parts – dancing red elements, a great flowing tail, a pair of large black paddles – in a virtuoso balancing act. It evokes celestial bodies and natural forms but the title refers to a nickname for US navy escort carriers, and it is possible to read the piece as an abstracted naval battle: submarines below, tiny tendrils above suggesting smoke from plummeting planes.

“Baby Flat Top” was a highlight at the show that made Calder’s name internationally, at the Louis Carré Gallery in Paris in 1946. It marked the moment when American art first conquered Europe, not the other way round. In the catalogue, an intoxicated Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “I know no art less untruthful than his. Sculpture suggests movement, painting suggests depth or light. Calder suggests nothing. He captures true, living movements and crafts them into something. His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes.” Calder’s American confidence and technical panache were dignified with the gravitas of European existentialism.

Wire sculpture of Josephine Baker

The Royal Academy’s 2008 exhibition reconstructing Paris in this period paired Calder and Miró, playful optimists, against Alberto Giacometti and Georges Braque, the pessimists. But there are links, too, between Calder and Giacometti: wiry forms; fluid language; the insistence that sculpture should come down from its pedestal; and – most resonant today – the sense of uncertainty, becoming rather than being, which each achieved by concentrating on movement. Giacometti’s most expensive sculpture is “Walking Man”; Calder’s is the complex structure of quivering abstract/natural forms, “Lily of Force” (1946, another star of Carré’s show), which fetched $18.56m at auction last year.

Calder not only introduced movement into sculpture, but also chance. As Sartre wrote of the mobiles: “A general destiny of movement is sketched for them, and then they are left to work it out for themselves.” This was a holy grail for conceptual artists from Duchamp (“Nude Descending a Staircase”) onwards – it was Duchamp who gave Calder’s moving sculptures the name “mobile”, and Pace Gallery’s focus chimes with the Barbican’s current exhibition of Duchamp and his American followers John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Like Duchamp, Calder fused Ecole de Paris modernism with American liberation from tradition to challenge what art could be – transforming sculpture from a composition based on mass and volume to suggest ideas based on open space, transparency and performance. As the bright, finger-like forms of “Scarlet Digital” or the ethereal circles of “White Counterbalance” soar past, Calder feels contemporary still. He is an entertainer for our age of spectacle; for all his lightness of being, his leap in sculptural language to kinetic abstraction made him also the most original American artist of the 20th century.

‘Calder After the War’, Pace Gallery, London, April 19-June 7, www.pacegallery.com/london

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