Air artist Alexander Calder: the man who turned wind into art

When the American artist Alexander Calder visits Aline Bernstein with his self-built miniature circus on Christmas Eve 1929, he is surprised. Unexpectedly, there are only a few friends in her room waiting for his performance, while he had assumed fifty spectators. He lets it go anyway: His home-made animals made of wire, cork, wood and pieces of fabric walk through a track and do tricks, while Calder supplies the whole with background noise.

These performances were a success as he had his animals and acrobats perform in his studio in Montparnasse, Paris, where he lived for a long time. The Parisian elite loved it, and a circus critic had raved about how convincingly the moves had been imitated. That Cirque Calder went around the world and got the most striking name in Barcelona: circus of poet and humorist. Because if something stands out, it is the humor that speaks from the moving images. Whether it’s a sulking elephant, a lion running away or a clown blowing up a balloon too big: Calder’s circus is beautiful and fun.

That evening at Aline Bernstein’s, however, one person has a different experience: the writer Thomas Wolfe. In his posthumously published novel You can’t go home again (1940) he tells what can be seen and how the character Piggy Logan (who is the model for Calder) approaches the whole. The spectators were the kind who were “bored of life and weary of death, but they were not bored with Mr. Piggy Logan and his circus of wire puppets”.


They clap when they can’t laugh off the discomfort and remain patient when things go wrong. Because that’s the case with Wolfe: it takes too long and Logan’s too fat fingers (actually Calder had big hands too) let everything go wrong. Trapeze figures plunge, puppets fall apart, and as the audience experiences vicarious embarrassment at the display and the falling performers, Logan giggles a little while engrossed in his game. Wolfe does not mention that Calder was mindful of fallen trapeze workers and therefore allowed puppets on stretchers to enter the arena.

It’s a witty but villainous piece from Wolfe. Particularly striking is that Logan is portrayed as a clown figure with the grin of an idiot. As if a clown figure would be bad for art, and someone who could laugh at his own work was by definition banal. Calder (1898-1976) would be a kind of clown with his circus, or rather: an enthusiastic child who involves others in his play. In the surviving films, where Calder arrives as a sort of Charlie Chaplin with two suitcases full of circus props, you can hear him announcing the acts and making animal noises after the arena is set up.

Where in the 1920s and 1930s heavy theories and seriousness were the order of the day, and art was usually static, Calder brought humor and movement. It will be the humor that annoyed Wolfe, because humor in art is usually time-bound, and once something becomes too time-bound, it is no longer considered art.

However, it is the humor (and the beauty of the cork and fabric animals) that makes Calder’s circus still amazing a century later. His ease in the circus, his mobiles and steel 3D portraits make his work attractive and innovative, and have earned him a reputation as one of the most innovative sculptors of the twentieth century.

aerial drawings

Alexander Calder: Untitled, 1963.

Photo Sandra Pointet courtesy of the Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York

The game started early. Born near Philadelphia in 1898, Calder’s parents were artists, allowing him to be creative from an early age. With the leftover materials he found – string, corks and scraps of fabric – he built toys for his sister and himself. It awakened the handy man in him, and he promptly began studying to become a technical engineer. It wasn’t him anyway, and even though art wasn’t a big deal, he chose the artistic direction. Drawing was better for him than painting and he started his career capturing animals in motion, later followed by Josephine Baker in thread on a string. A portrait that could literally swing if you pulled the string.

When he traveled to Paris to explore his options, not everyone was immediately enthusiastic. One reviewer wondered if Calder was trying to mock his spectators, and his early exhibitions sold little. A few years later, he initially did not want to sell any of his ‘air drawings’ in Berlin either.

Because that’s actually what Calder did: He made portraits and animals that were moved by the wind or air circulation. That movement was part of the artwork, and the wind became art in itself. His fascination with that movement was also what he remembered from his meeting with Mondrian.

Also read: There is nothing more cheerful than a garden full of calders

Quick paintings

Calder visited Mondrian’s studio in 1930. “Why don’t you make your paintings move?” he had asked when he saw the canvases arranged on the wall. “My paintings are already very fast”, Mondrian would have replied. Mondriaan saw more in rhythm than in movement, and there was plenty of rhythm in his work.

The meeting was crucial to the work that followed, which made Calder the man who made art move, and who later exploited artists such as Jean Tinguely and William Kentridge.

Calder began painting again after the meeting, imitating Mondrian. Of course, it didn’t work, and it was a good thing that the planet Pluto was also discovered around that time (the sphere was still called a planet at the time). Calder went to a planetarium in Paris and studied the moving planets. What he saw there, he would later use in his mobiles in various ways. The work of figurative works is over, and the universe serves as its abstract model, the world as ‘moving Mondrian’.

From that moment on, everyone is excited, although Mondriaan has reservations about the big mobiles. More speed can be added, he says. But Calder sees nothing in that. He is said to have replied to Mondrian: “Movement has its own beauty.” It doesn’t matter to him whether you let everything be controlled by the wind or by a mechanism. The movements are good for backdrops, fountains and water ballets. Sometimes things go wrong, for example when the moving images get in the way of the dancers. A choreographer explains to him that the stage becomes less beautiful when dancers also come, after which the set still loses.

Alexander Calder: Blue Feather, approx. 1948.

Photo Stephen White courtesy of the Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York.

Bent propeller

It was a small step away mobiles to stabilizers: large images that make a movement because the viewer walks around them and therefore always has a different perspective. The lightness may be gone, but the humor remains, for those who, for example, for its big, red Flamingo stands for or stands for Bent propelleran image that takes on a different meaning when it was destroyed in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The question is which side the artists will soon show next to Calder’s works at the exhibition Calder now standing will emphasize. The art gallery displays works by artists created especially for the exhibition or linked to Calder’s work: Olafur Eliasson, Zilvinas Kempinas, Simone Leigh, Ernesto Neto, Carsten Nicolai, Roman Signer, Aki Sasamoto, Monika Sosnowska, Sarah Sze and Rirkrit Tiravanija . Is the connection between these artists and Calder’s movement, innovation or also his humor?

The spirit of the times does not seem set for humor and lightness, but it would be nice if one of the artists breathed new life into the circus. Calder did not even after 1961: his knees could no longer let the animals do their tricks in a crawling position. The animals are now motionless in display cases, but if there’s anything we could really use right now, it’s sulking elephants, pooping lions and falling trapeze artists.

Calder now can be seen from 21/11 to 29/5/22 in Kunsthal Rotterdam.

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