Last week I finally made it to the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate Modern. It was a wonderful experience. I went to get my fill of the fantastic and elegant mobiles for which Calder is best known. While these beautiful and meditative sculptures more than met my expectations I was also surprised and delighted by the earlier figurative works on show.
Image: Calder’s Vertical Foliage 1941, source Tate Modern website 20/02/2016
In my opinion the best works in the exhibition are the simplest; the ones that demonstrate an absolute understanding of the materials used and do not appear self-conscious about the desire to make something whimsical or that involves a lack of control from the artist / curator / viewer. While it was interesting to learn of Calder’s experimentation with built-in backgrounds and motorised movement, I feel that these pieces lose something important through being constricted.
Throughout the exhibition I could overhear visitors saying that they wished there were more breezes in the rooms to allow the work to move. I agree with them! People were even trying to blow or waft at the works (when they thought the Tate staff weren’t looking.) To me this just shows how well people identified with the work and understood, perhaps better than the curators, how it should be experienced. The relationship between the environment, the viewer and the work was clearly very important to Calder. Some of the later works are large enough or multi-faceted enough to pick up even the tiniest of air currents and so do move despite the gallery setting; others are too small or too heavy to easily have life breathed into them in these sanitised spaces, or were expressly designed to need a nudge by the viewer in order to move.
For an exhibition called Performing Sculptures it’s a shame that more couldn’t have been done to allow these works to show themselves at their best. Nevertheless it is still a great show. I found it hard to leave.