Think of anything light as a feather: fish bones, sticks, blades of grass, mouse bones, autumn leaves and dandelion fluff. So think about a perfect balance between all the feathery things. Everything swirls in the air on thin metal threads, moving in the wind, drawing shapes in space, shapes that are sometimes tiny, but sometimes also huge.
There is only one artist as associated with lightness – with the magic of nothing becoming something brilliant, with jokes about size, shape, material and defying gravity – as the American artist Alexander Calder. Born on the brink of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and died in 1976, he is the first artist to remove sculpture from its plinth, transform it into light-footed mobiles and add primary colors. He abandoned the touching birds and fish, the circus figures, dogs and dolls he made as a boy and young man from iron wire, found scrap and stumps when he met Piet Mondrian in 1930 in Paris. Calder describes that acquaintance as a lightning strike. He begins to make abstract mobiles and stabilizes, as his friend Marcel Duchamp calls his standing, often monumental pictures.
At the exhibition Calder now in the Rotterdam Kunsthal it is impossible to walk around grumpy. What boldness radiates from Calder’s twenty works, which are collected by the Calder Foundation in New York. And with that boldness – which you realize was still possible in the first half of the twentieth century, because everything could still be made new – you also get a certain melancholy. There was still so much future to gain.
In 2012, Doede Hardeman of the Kunstmuseum in The Hague organized an almost complete overview of Calder’s work, which is difficult to surpass. The current exhibition Calder now can’t beat it, but it’s not because of Calder’s work. The twenty works provide a good overview of the aerial artist’s work, created in the last forty years of his life. In addition, the works – much needed at Calder – get a lot of space.
Thus comes the still beautiful, large and refined mobile Downward Back (1956) quite rightly. Two black-painted metal circles (one the size of a soup spoon, the other a spoon) counterbalance graceful metal blades, wires and buttons.
Also read: Air artist Alexander Calder: the man who turned wind into art
Lesser-known works are also present, including a lanky bright red statue Sphere Pierces of Cylinders (1939) and – the earliest image in the exhibition – a motorized model for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Unfortunately, the model’s engine cannot be operated, which means that the standing, abstract and sharply painted semicircles, the spiral cut from old metal and the red and yellow square are rigid. From 1964, at the great Calder retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, it has been taboo to touch his mobiles and pictures. The artist was tired of pushing and pulling in his work. His work may look playful, but it is not a toy. The parts are too fragile for that.
The reason for Calder now The selection of contemporary artists by the Austrian guest curators Dieter Buchhart and Anna Karina Hofbauer is unconvincing and even a bit alienating. The two have applied virtually all criteria that apply in the visual arts to Calder’s work. And then Calder becomes a ‘performance’ when the Japanese Aki Sasamoto creates a performance with sliding wall panels. For example, Calder falls into the ‘sound and science’ category with a noisy choice for German Carsten Nicolai, while Nicolai lacks Calder’s subtlety. Calder also belongs to ‘forgotten techniques’, and there is certainly a beautiful ceramic and salt-glazed bust of Simone Leigh – the American entry for the Venice Biennale next year (Titi2021), but this political work has little relation to Calder.
In addition, the artists who immediately make you think ‘ha, that’s right’ are sometimes poorly chosen. The Swiss Roman signer, for example, spent his life experimenting with falling, falling through the ice, with hydropower and explosions. But in the Kunsthallen he is present with a large, bent organ pipe bent over a trestle and a white shirt on a balloon. It is scarce for an artist so closely related to Calder.
There are two artists who manage to convey some of Calder’s magic. It is the Brazilian Ernesto Neto who fills a golden yellow room with giant elephant legs made of pantyhose. The feet of the pillars are filled with strongly scented cloves, saffron and cumin. It happens when the body is the anatomy of time (2000) is grand and ephemeral, as Calder’s mobiles are.
Polish Monika Sosnowska also demonstrates a believable relationship with Calder. Sosnowska shows three giant hanging abstract pictures. Gate 2, 3 and 4 developed them in 2014 at the Calder residence in Saché, France. These are pictures that look like a kolkhoz tractor has run over factory gates, playgrounds, bus shelters and other Eastern Bloc street furniture. At Sosnowska, the crumpled remains have been put in a delicious, brightly colored jacket and hung from the ceiling. There they rest, as remnants of a totalitarian system, light-legged, grim but also hopeful. Their doors, cracks, crevices are open to a future from which much can be expected.
A version of this article is also published in the NRC Handelsblad of 2 December 2021