Alexander Calder is said to be the man who introduced mobiles to the art world in the 1920s (the things that hang over babies’ cribs rather then the phones). The first room in the Tate Modern’s retrospective of his work is dedicated to his early, figurative pieces. Deceptively complex wire sculptures dangle from the ceiling, rotating slowly in the breeze. They look like Quentin Blake sketches brought to life; both endearing and grotesque.
They depict feats of balance and moments of suspended movement. Stand still and they appear to be two dimensional, but move and they shift disconcertingly, their tiny hands and moustaches and penises reconfiguring into new shapes. This interplay between two and three dimensional art fascinated Calder throughout his career and can be traced from these early pieces right up to his famous galaxy-esque mobiles. During the 1920s Calder was content creating these kinetic figures – it wasn’t until a meeting with the painter Mondrian in 1930 that his work became more abstract. He began experimenting with cubism and futurism – adding literal movement to the movement implied in the paintings. One series of sculptures adds three dimensional elements to familiar-looking paintings – coloured shapes hang in front of decidedly Mondrian-esque blocks of colour.
While these are interesting, the highlight is his later work featuring incredibly complex mobiles with vast arrays of independently moving parts, like models of as-yet-undiscovered solar systems. When his mobiles were first exhibited in New York, Einstein stood in front of one for 40 minutes while it went through its full cycle of motion; a compelling recommendation indeed.
First published in City A.M.