Conference Champions Calder's Use of Movement to Create Groundbreaking Sculptures

April 09, 2010

April 12, 2010 — Elizabeth Turner, vice provost for the arts at the University of Virginia, escorted students from her "Alexander Calder: Physics and Poetry" class in the Art Museum, down Rugby Road and across University Avenue, to Calder's sculpture, "Tripes," set on the Lawn in front of Peabody Hall.

Dancers from Drama Department lecturer Rose Pasquarello Beauchamp's class interacted with the sculpture as Turner talked about Calder's work, "Tripes" in particular. The 1974 stabile is 12 feet tall and made of painted sheet metal. It is an abstract phantasmagorical tree that changes shape and form as one walks around it.

The 20th century was a world of mechanization and speed, Turner told the group. "Calder created works that reach out into space and incorporate the world, asking us to respond."

It was the kick-off of "Capturing Movement," a two-day, Universitywide, trans-disciplinary conference celebrating "the transformative inventions of the unique and accomplished 20th-century artist Alexander Calder.

In opening remarks on Thursday, Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research, said, "This is a conference we are very excited about here at the University of Virginia."

Disciplines across the University, he said, are "passionate about having the University of Virginia be a place where we can explore innovation, exploration and risk taking. It's about not limiting art and sculpture to the art museum or the arts precinct, but sharing it across all the disciplines."

Turner told the group of about 80 gathered in the museum lobby that, "'Capturing Movement' comes from the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who used the phrase to codify his experience of Calder's mobiles in the 1940s."

She introduced Alexander S.C. Rower, president of the Calder Foundation and Calder's grandson, who activated "Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere," of 1932-1933. It's Calder's earliest mobile and had not been exhibited since a showing in Paris in 1932. It was discovered recently in the foundation archives after they received a letter on which Calder had drawn a diagram of how it works. It had been shown in Rome and Paris  before its showing at U.Va..

The sculpture consists of two suspended spheres – a seven-pound, cast-iron sphere and a small wood ball that hang by strings from the ends of a bar that is parallel to the ground.  – five green wine bottles, a tin can, wood box and a gong are placed below the spheres on a plinth that measures about 12-feet by 12-feet by 4 inches. When the large sphere is gently struck, the small sphere spins around hitting the objects and creating  both visual excitement and sound. , The objects can be arranged in unlimited configurations.

"To see a Calder sculpture in motion is to see a sculpture as having its own life force," Rower said.

This set Calder's work apart from anything that had been done before, Rower added. It incorporates "the idea of intervention and the idea of the viewer as the artist. It's a poetic experience. Visual poetry."

In his keynote address, "Sculptor of Energy," Rower continued discussion of Calder's work and the procession of his intellectual ideas.

Through a series of photos, culled from the foundation's more than 130,000 documents of the artist's life and production, Rower chronicled Calder's exploration of motion.

One early work is a duck sculpture Calder created for his mother when he was a young boy. The sculpture, cut from flat sheets of brass, rocks when the tail is hit. It's his first kinetic sculpture, Rower said.

In wire sculptures, which he began making in the mid-1920s, Calder was able to express a number of ideas – transparency, motion, energy, direction of force and suspension.

To exhibit these wire sculptures properly, Rower said they must be installed so they cast a shadow. Of a wire portrait Calder made of his friend Fernand Leger, Rower said, "The shadow is as important as the wire."

Because of the movement and the changing qualities Calder built into them, one needs to experience the works of art. "Real time is what Calder's work is all about. It's not about what happened in 1920 or 1930," Rower said.

In 1929 Calder created his first abstract sculpture after visiting the studio of Dutch painter Mondrian in Paris. There he saw colored rectangles tacked to a white wall that Mondrian used for compositional experimentation to create his grid-based works. Calder suggested to Mondrian that he could activate them, but Mondrian was not open to the idea, Rower said.

This experience led to Calder's play of two- and three-dimensional works and his invitation to the viewer to intervene and experience the art by incorporating small cranks.

Calder began working on larger mobiles in the 1930s after he moved his family and studio to Roxbury, Conn.

It wasn't until after World War II that Calder began receiving commissions for both mobiles and stabiles.

Calder's "Flamingo," which Rower called one of his favorite works, is an abstract stabile that graces the rectangular plaza bordered by three federal buildings designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Although monumental and weighing 53 tons, the sculpture has a tremendous lightness and tremendous buoyancy," Rower said. Open in design, the sculpture both engages with the buildings and invites pedestrians to walk under it and interact with the space it creates.

Rower concluded his presentation by showing a black-and-white photograph of a lost motorized sculpture that Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp saw on a visit to Calder's studio. Calder asked him what he should call works like this. Duchamp's reply was "mobile," which in French is "a pun between motion and your motives."

— By Jane Ford