Alexander Calder’s (1898-1976) acceptance of the prize for sculpture at the XXVI Venice Biennale in 1952 forged a bond of friendship with a country he had admired for some time. He was especially close to art connoisseur Giovanni Carandente, who sadly passed away last June 7th while working furiously on the catalogue for this exhibit. Carandente is largely to thank for introducing Italy to the radical idea that art could break forth from closed frames into three-dimensional space and engage the surrounding environment by contrast and analogy. Carandente’s keen interest in urban sculpture boded well for Calder, whose “Teodelapio” (1962) outside the Spoleto train station ignited a passion for public art in Italy that endures even today. His friendship with Carandente expanded the possibilities for his prodigious output, leading him to design several opera sets for theatres across Italy. Although Calder declined the Medal of Freedom offered him by President Gerald Ford on political grounds, he went on to accept several degrees honoris causa from prestigious Italian universities.
Little surprise then that Rome should choose to showcase a large number of his works spanning the Pennsylvania native’s entire career, from his earliest experiments with metallic figurines including “Dog and Duck” (1909), completed when he was only eleven years old, to his “Pittsburgh”, a monumental mobile that earned him the prize for sculpture at the 1958 Carnegie International. Browsing the neatly arranged seven sections of this exhibit, one gets the sense that despite the vast terrain of media and styles he traversed during his lifetime, a single preoccupation with contrast remained ever present. Gravity and flight, movement and stasis, mass and levity: any phenomena that presented an opportunity for balance and counterbalance completely engrossed him. This is already evident in his early bronze casts of “Cow” (1930) and “Femme sur les mains” (1930) which display a noble rootedness to the earth by concentrating weight in nodes and bulges across the figure. Compare these with his two “pieds en l’air” of the same year, which freeze the inexorable moment after an accidental fall when the momentum shifts and the legs and arms revert their movement before flopping to the ground. Throughout his Parisian years (1926—1931), Calder continued to experiment with a sparseness of line in his watercolors that assimilates the stateliness of Matisse.
The work of this period was just one small step away from his mobiles and performance pieces. His proclivity for composition was surpassed only by a drive for originality, meaning that colors and forms were not enough: he had to compose motions. This yearning emerges in his oil paintings and gouaches where we find spheres of primary colors bursting forth from the canvas or paper and intermingling at the front of the picture plane. Indeed, they finally succeed in “breaking through” the surface in “White Panel” (1936) and “Red Panel” (1938), where suspended objects are superimposed against a monochrome wall-mounted panel, daintily twisting and turning with even the slightest variation in air current or humidity. The latter, on display for the first time, is the perfect locus for studying the intersecting wakes left by moving parts as the free components displace one another in time, always on the verge of colliding ever so lightly. Also making its public debut is “Untitled” (1929), one of Calder’s first mobiles, ingenious for its simplicity in design and depth of vision. It consists of four larger white balls affixed to the ends of gracefully curved wires that stem from a concatenated central cascade, all of which is counterbalanced by a single wire protruding in the opposite direction and capped with a smaller red ball. Thus Calder launches a theme of weight and color balance that echoes throughout his subsequent mobiles, suggesting a simultaneity of tension and release subject to both natural fluctuations and human manipulation. Whereas he once reveled in mechanical forces, Calder now entrusts his work to less controllable and predictable—though not utterly random—forces.
This is where Calder differs from the dadaists and surrealists. He shares with them a fastidious attention to the proper execution of the work, but his inspiration and goal are charged not with denying or upsetting nature but accepting it in all its shiftlessness and volatility. Jean-Paul Sartre drew attention to this unique characteristic of Calder’s work by highlighting the dependency of his mobiles on external sources of energy. “They feed on air, they breathe, they borrow life from the vague life of the atmosphere” (Alexander Calder, New York: Buchholz Gallery/Curt Valentin, 1947). In Sartre’s eyes, this feature imparted to them a profound metaphysical significance, a fact which Calder probably would not have denied, even though he preferred to explore it from every possible angle rather than formulate it into words. He did, however, feel obliged to respond to Léger’s charge of realism. “I make what I see,” he retorted. “It’s only the problem of seeing it. If you can imagine a thing, conjure it up in space—then you can make it, and tout de suite you’re a realist. The universe is real but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it” (Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York and Evanston, IL: Harper & Row, 1962, p. 51).
Consequently imagination was an active power for Calder. It was a means of visualizing rather than hallucinating. He abstracted the ideal forms of beauty only to reintegrate them afresh with gravity, equilibrium and negative space, using a bare minimal of materials. Yet his work is not devoid of a certain affinity with surrealism, particularly in the “constellations” which make up a good part of this collection. These open three-dimensional structures consist of straight metal wires connecting small pieces of wood of various shapes, sizes, and colors in a quasi molecular configuration. Duchamp believed these pieces expressed a “pure joie de vivre”, and indeed they do seem to gush from the soul of a homo ludens more than a homo faber or even a homo sapiens.
With its spacious vaulted ceilings and unadorned neo-classical interior, the recently renovated Palazzo delle Esposizioni is a marvelous venue to contemplate Calder’s works. The mammoth “Pittsburgh”, normally suspended from the ceiling of the Steel City’s airport, has found a fitting home as it hangs in the Palazzo’s central atrium. The second floor plays host to a collection of approximately eighty photographs taken by Ugo Mulas of Calder’s house and studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, and his workplace in Saché, France. Patrons may also view Herbert Matter’s film Les Mobiles des Calder exploring the connections between Calder’s work and natural rhythms, as well as a video presentation of the famous Cirque Calder.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Italy’s role in refining Calder’s genius is the inclusion of “Romulus and Remus” (1928), the artist’s largest wire sculpture which is only now making its first appearance in the city that inspired it. The mouth of the grazing she-wolf smiles tenderly, seemingly unaware of the two suckling orphans at her side. Calder’s economical use of presumably recycled materials continues to challenge the idea that sculpture must be a solid mass. More importantly, it invokes the viewer to participate in Calder’s imaginative power, to “see” within pure space the energy of movement, mass, and meaning, reminding us how real the universe really is—even in our mythological creations.