Alexander Calder: In Defiance of Gravity
Guest Writer: Phway Aye
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is arguably best known today for his kinetic mobiles. What is less known however is Calder’s studio practice. Only after Pedro E. Guerrero’s 1998 book did the artist’s Roxbury, Connecticut studio become better publicized. Guerrero had an almost twenty year relationship with the Calder family. Through his photography, Calder’s studio is laid bare. Whether or not a studio can truly reveal an artist’s mind, or give a successful supplementary reading of an artist’s work are questions I hope to probe. Although the Roxbury studio was only one of Calder’s several workspaces, the artist settled there for most of his artistic life. It therefore serves as an intimate lens into the artist’s personality and fundamental tenets of his art.
Guerrero’s photographs, shot from various vantage points, quickly reveal a pervading theme: Calder’s studio as a place of organized chaos. Guerrero describes his initial reaction to the studio as, “complete happiness in heart stopping clutter”. The space is filled from top to bottom with scraps, materials, and tools. Calder’s sculptures hang from the ceiling, and paper, paint and works in progress are strewn across the floor or discarded into frenzied heaps filling almost any conceivable gap. A cluttered artist workspace is somewhat of a common occurrence, but what is interesting about Calder’s mess is that it so drastically contrasts the works he so famously conceives. The mess of Calder’s studio ultimately relays a strange sense of ‘weightiness’ – the very confirmation of gravity’s existence. Calder, so obsessed with defying gravity in his sculptural practice, seems to work in an environment of quite the opposite order.
Art historian George Baker describes Calder’s intrigue with weightlessness as a reaction to the longstanding conception of the sculpture as the human body. Calder lifts the sculpture off the ground, and severs its ties with the earth. Instead of looking to natural earth-bound objects for the ideal source of form, Calder instead references the Universe and its plethora of floating masses. This obsession with flotation and detachment ultimately guides Calder to use motion to breathe life into his works. Calder’s kinetic sculptures depend on air or the human touch for activation. Les Mouettes (The Seagulls), for example, composed of painted sheet metal, rods, and steel wire, becomes complete only through instigation; the metal discs rotating and crossing paths only from an outside force. Nevertheless, the varying motions, speeds and amplitudes are predictable to a large extent and still combine to make a resultant ‘whole’.
Weightlessness and mobility are both important concepts to Calder’s mobiles, but the Roxbury Studio shows little to support this. However, what does arise in both the studio space and Calder’s art is the notion of organized chaos. The mess of gravity-bound materials, at first a contradiction to Calder’s practice, actually comes to parallel a fundamental idea – that of chaos controlled. Calder’s mobiles, in their need for activation and reliance on chance, incorporate unpredictability into the once motionless medium of sculpture. With every movement, the sculpture takes on a new form. But despite their transformations, the mobiles still retain some semblance of an underlying relational structure – a diagrammatic network of wire, rods, and string with the planes as vector arrows forever held in an unchanging relationship.
Nineteen White Discs is an example of this static/mobile conflict. The discs, attached to thin steel wires, are set in a series of branch-like networks. While the structure is subject to change, the discs are held at a fixed distance and follow a strict sizing pattern, decreasing in size from one end to another. Seen as a fluctuating ‘whole’, Calder’s mobiles reveal an interesting ecosystem of forms - objects of various origins and contexts, always in flux yet also always determined by a set of ascertained spatial relationships. This dichotomy, so core to Calder’s work, exemplifies the very real-life contradiction between the Universe’s inescapable disorder and the constant and often overbearing physical forces that still govern it.
But despite these layers of interpretation, Calder’s works still very much appeal to a wide audience, especially for their playful appearances. Alexander Rower, Calder’s grandson, describes how his grandfather once discovered a dumping ground on the estate that had been used by old homesteaders. Calder would collect shards of glass, pottery and metal from the ground, and insert them into many of his works, revealing his fixation with hoarding and recycling simple materials. Calder’s Circus, for example, is made purely from found objects, an aspect which adds immensely to the fun and friendly allure of his art. James Johnson Sweeney, a firm advocate of Calder’s work, describes the artist’s most innovative contribution to abstraction as the use of humor – “through humor he satisfies the observer’s appetite for feeling or emotion without recourse to direct representation”. Calder’s pieces, in their child-like legibility, disrupt the often-impenetrable world of art making and appreciation and make fun and play centripetal forces.
J. C. Friderich von Schiller, in his 18th century exposition on aesthetics, argued that beauty should always be directly linked to the play-impulse, an idea that Calder radically employs. In turning the discussion of Calder’s art back to his studio, one sees that humor and play is inherent to the way in which Calder practices. Calder’s studio is indefinite and ultimately spills beyond the confines of the warehouse space Guerrero religiously captures. Calder leaves few elements of his home untouched, and transforms seemingly mundane objects around his house, from toilet seats and paper dispensers, to kitchen utensils and door handles, into intricate works of art. With a lighthearted sensibility, Calder turns the entire Roxbury estate into a place of creation and display.
Even for an outside visitor, the familiarity of the objects in the Roxbury studio immediately captivates. Like the jumble of materials in one’s own attic or basement, the messy storage space is a motif that many recognize. Calder’s studio, in its haphazardness and unassuming nature, counters the idea of an inaccessible artist’s studio. Just like the tethering of disparate materials in Calder’s art, no longer is the studio a miraculous conception entirely separate from the makings of a genius. Calder’s studio practice is inextricably bound to his pieces and provides a platform for engaging with the discourse of his art.
Phway Su Aye is a contemporary art enthusiast based in New York. She studied art history at Princeton University. Her research focused on post-war American art and Myanmar contemporary art and architecture.