How Calder pierced Albert Einstein and Sartre – the forward

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As a teenager, I often confused the work of Alexander Calder with that of Joan Miró and sometimes even of Picasso. Bold, playful and abstract, the sculpture of these three art giants appeared to be interchangeable. Visits to the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona and the Picasso Museum in Paris only seem to confirm Calder’s European influences, although the darker elements at play in their work seem absent from his. Being introduced to lion tamers and wire acrobats in his “Circus Calder” several years ago in the lobby of the Whitney Museum in New York, at the time in the brutalist building of Marcel Breuer, reinforced this European link. It also reminded me of another: Calder’s huge red “Flamingo” in front of Mies Van der Rhoe’s Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago.

Then I found out that after leaving his first life in the village of Greenwich, Alexander Calder (“Sandy” for his friends) had lived up the road from me in Connecticut. The plot thickens. It was only last year that I learned of Calder’s European pedigree, not only in terms of his Romanian Jewish mother and Scottish paternal grandfather, but also his chance meeting of his future wife, Louisa James. , on the bridge of the “De Grasse,” during a return trip from Paris in June 1929. Whether she is the great-niece of the Anglophile author, Henry James is even more intriguing. Upon closer examination, Calder’s somewhat nomadic childhood had played out like one of James’ novels. Although he had moved from Philadelphia to Arizona, California, New York and back, Calder’s singular constant had been a love of DIY, making wire jewelry, and making toys for children. dolls of his sister. Graduated in mechanical engineering, he then took courses at the Art Students League in New York, but it was in Paris that he gravitated in 1926.

By enrolling at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Calder positions himself at the epicenter of avant-garde bohemian artistic life, where Modigliani died a few years earlier and where Chagall is one of the many artists to be seen. a comeback after the First World War. Hanging out with philosophers, writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and artists from the Montparnasse district, Calder deepened his interest in yarn as a medium, this time creating figures and resemblances. He integrated portrait and sculpture, the respective occupations of his mother and father. Farm animals, circus characters and famous people like Joséphine Baker and Kiki de Montparnasse become his subjects. By hanging and balancing these shapes, even using some in narrated performances, Calder freed them from mounted frames and display plinths, which would have been typical of the era. Currently, many of them are also the focus of one of three MoMA galleries including “Alexander Calder: Modern From the Start”. The two remaining galleries and the Sculpture Garden mainly display his more familiar and larger-scale works.

As Calder’s subject grew, so did his materials and desire for movement. He met the Catalan artist Joan Miró, also residing in Montparnasse, a year later. They have become longtime friends and admirers of each other’s work. Pablo Picasso attended Calder’s first non-objective sculpture exhibition in 1931 at the Galerie Percier in Paris. Fernand Léger wrote the preface to his catalog. Marcel Duchamp coined the now ubiquitous term “mobiles” for Calder’s kinetic sculptures, Jean Arp attributed the “stabiles” to his fixed ones. A visit to Piet Mondrian’s neighboring studio in 1930 would have given Calder “the shock that converted him” to abstraction. Observing the placement of the orthogonal canvases in Mondrian’s studio, Calder recognized that the whole environment had become the art itself. He remarked, “It was difficult to see ‘art’ because it was all part of art. Then came her Eureka moment: “Maybe it would be fun to make those rectangles wobble.” A new genre had arrived.

After MoMA acquired Calder’s “A Universe” in 1934 and commissioned “Lobster Trap and Fish Tail” five years later for its new building, the museum organized Calder’s mid-career retrospective in 1943. Although Calder gradually moved towards larger works, he had found his theme: “At that time and virtually since, the underlying form of my work has been the system of the universe.” When “A Universe” was first exhibited at the Museum, Albert Einstein reportedly stood “frozen in front of his slowly moving orbs for the entire forty-minute cycle”.

Due to the practical considerations of WWII, Calder made a series of smaller sculptures with more economical materials in 1945. Lovers of the portability of these “Constellations” in wire and wood, Marcel Duchamp convinced Calder to take them apart. and send them to Paris. An exhibition of the pieces gathered at the Galerie Louis Carré, a year later, with an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and visited by Henri Matisse, effectively revived Calder on the European and world scene after the war.

In love too, it seemed that his art was inseparable from its hectic environment. The couple married in 1931, bought a farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, raised two daughters, and then acquired a studio in the village of Saché, southwest of Paris. The two houses were often a whirlwind of European artists where dance was very present and where friendships were formed and strengthened. Positive stories abound about Calder’s gregarious nature – the warm couple welcomed European exiles during the war, befriended those they had already met in Europe and even those they did not have. not encountered, such as cartoonist Saul Steinberg. Jed Perl, the author of a two-volume biography of Calder, spoke of the “extraordinary gift of friendship from the couple who have crossed continents and oceans.” He also noted that “we see globalism as a new invention and yet, at least among artists, globalism has been around forever”.

It was Jean-Paul Sartre who declared: “One of Calder’s objects is like the sea, always starting over, always new. It is the memory of this ship’s journey to and from Paris almost a century ago that continues to inspire rightly. In these days of wanderlust, when traveling in one’s own universe has become almost as cumbersome as it was in those early days, we are grateful to MoMA for putting so much of Calder’s work online. Through the two portals, real and virtual, one can gain a deeper understanding of the early management of Calder by MoMA, whose innovative sculpture attractively rises with modernist European existentialism. Fortunately, its mobiles and stabiles, located across the world, have become more accessible thanks to social media and digital technology, eliminating the need to board an ocean liner and navigate these difficult waters. Potential romantic encounters notwithstanding.

Alexander Calder: Modern From the Start is currently playing at MoMA through August 7..

Sarah Balcombe is an architect, artist and founding editor of the art blog www.manhattanmodernist.com. His works can be viewed at www.sarahbalcombe.com.


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