Alexander Calder: Hypermobility and Music

 Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

The current exhibition ‘Calder: Hypermobility’ at the Whitney Museum in New York City raises interesting questions about Alexander Calder’s art and its relationship to 20th century music.

In his youth, Calder had shown not only an interest in art, but also an interest in mechanical engineering and applied kinetics. Calder (1898-1976) had moved to Paris in 1926, where became friends with many of the leading artists and musicians, such as Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, Francis Picabia, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Eric Satie and Edgard Varèse. Paris in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was an exciting time for artists — the Art Nègre (which had influenced Picasso and Matisse) and the Paris Jazz Age had brought many American performers and artists to Paris and to the lively Montparnasse quarter where Calder lived. The 1929 short film ‘Montparnasse – Where the Muses Hold Sway’ gives not only an idea of this interesting period in Paris, but also emphasizes the close relationship between artists and musicians, who drew inspiration from each other.

Montparnasse – Where the Muses Hold Sway

Calder with Wire Sculptures --‘Edgar Varese’ and ‘Untitled’, 1963

Calder with Wire Sculptures –‘Edgar Varese’ and ‘Untitled’, 1963

Calder started his Paris career by creating sculptures using three-dimensional line “drawings” (‘drawing in space’ as he called it) with wire – including one of the composer Edgard Varèse as well as four of Josephine Baker, who was performing in Paris at the time.

Many of his fellow artists were also interested in Calder’s creation of his miniature ‘Le Grand Cirque Calder’ – initially inspired by a two week stay with the Barnum and Bailey Circus in New York. Calder fashioned many of his puppets after the circus acrobats and tightrope walkers he had met, using wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork and other found objects. He performed with his circus, operating cranks and pulleys that activated trapeze artists, acrobats and animals — and roaring like a lion, and dropping “chestnuts” behind the performing elephant after which he ‘pooper-scooped’ them up. Every performance was unique – Calder, its magician, street performer and entertainer, always focused on the elements of change and chance — theatrical performance became second nature for him.

pic 3It was therefore not surprising that he was commissioned to create the set for Satie’s composition ‘Socrate: Three dialogues of Plato’ (orchestra and voice). The stage set consists of three elements, a red disk, interlocking steel hoops and a vertical rectangle, white on one side black on the other, against a blue backdrop. Calder filled the empty stage by moving these different objects as if they were dancing through space and time – with the flow of time controlled like an artistic enterprise. It would serve as inspiration for his subsequent work – his mobiles — the name provided by Marcel Duchamp.

Eric Satie – Socrate: Three dialogues of Plato

 ‘HI’ (Two Circus Acrobats), 1928

‘HI’ (Two Circus Acrobats), 1928

Inspired by a visit to Mondrian’s studio, Calder started to experiment with abstract forms and created the first kinetic sculptures, initially manipulated by cranks and motors — thus changing the ‘traditional’ notion of the work of art as a static object. Carefully balancing the various components, often using forms inspired by nature and simple, primary colors, Calder then started turning away from the initial motor-driven mobiles to systems which would move on their own, either by touch or by air currents. These works would further emphasize the concept of chance, but more importantly sometimes also produce sound – unpredictable sound, related to their unpredictable movement.

 Calder Mobile - East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Calder Mobile – East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

During the current exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, gallery attendants put all of Calder’s mobiles in motion, agitating hanging works (which I am sure, many of us would have loved to do at one time or another in different exhibitions of his works throughout the world) – showing their unpredictable, slow, sometimes awkward, sometimes graceful movements – casting unexpected shadows on the surrounding walls.

 Alexander Calder at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Alexander Calder at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The two carved wooden arms of “Machine Motorisée” (Calder always used French titles for his works) from 1933, rotate on irregular axes, within millimeters of bumping into each other, creating uncertainty and unpredictability which Calder loved. The monumental ‘Mobile’ he created for the East Building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. initially used to bump into one of the walls when the air currents moved it — appreciated by Calder but not by the then director of the National Gallery of Art, Carter Brown. Very much to his regret, Calder was asked to change it.

Edgard Varèse
Deserts: Third Electronic Interpolation (beginning)

Calder exhibit “Hypermobility” at the Whitney Museum, New York

Calder exhibit “Hypermobility” at the Whitney Museum, New York

Satie’s compositions, jazz and compositions of Varèse, such as ‘Déserts’ (written for winds, brass and percussion instruments) and ‘Etude pour Espace’ can be very closely linked to Calder’s artistic creations, in that they convey music as sound objects, floating in space, unpredictable, evoking different colors, changing with different interpreters in different surroundings — leaving the experience and interpretation open to the listener/viewer — truly a very satisfying and unique experience.

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