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Calder's Pivoting Poetry

IF, as a certain Charles Caleb Colton in 1825 first observed, "imitation is the sincerest flattery," then American sculptor Alexander Calder was someone who did not have much time for flattery.

His best-known art form, the mobile, has spawned a welter of trivial imitations, many of them bobbing about merrily in children's bedrooms or disconsolately gathering cobwebs in waiting rooms. Asked in an interview with journalist and art critic Katharine Kuh in 1960 how he felt about his imitators, Calder dismissed them with curt disgust.

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Calder was a blunt man. But his warmth and genial humor have also been attested to endlessly by a large array of friends and fellow artists. His work also expresses these traits, clearly showing that they were central to his character. It is significant, therefore, that he expressed with intensity and without laughter his dislike of imitators.

By no means did Calder see the mobile as a merely amusing form of interior decor. He was modest, usually understating the meaning of his work if he said anything about it at all. Although uncomfortable with aesthetic theories and posturing, he is recorded as having been uneasy when David Smith was referred to as the greatest modern American sculptor. He had a conviction about his place. It was not that he had pretensions; it was a question of the seriousness of his work as sculpture, as art, and the orig inality of his inventions.

The persistent tendency of people to describe his mobiles as sources of "fun" seems likely to have dismayed him. He undoubtedly saw himself and his work as pioneering and discovery in the art realm.

Calder's mobiles came from two directions: the toys and circus animals he made at the outset of his life as an artist, and a powerful vision of the movements of the elements of the universe. On one occasion, seeing a planetarium show played in fast motion had a profound effect on him.

The mobile, hanging like a chandelier or variously supported from the floor, was a notion concocted by a trained engineer (Calder); its discs, leaves, balls, or blades are attached to wires attached to each other loosely enough to be free to respond to air or hand movements, but are still connected to some central point. There is always a link back to a pivot however wayward or distant the outer reaches of this sculptural "universe" might seem.

Without hiding the way in which his mobiles are constructed - in fact, quite deliberately showing it - Calder was fascinated by the invisible spaces that sculpture involves, by the way spaces between solid forms are brought to life.

This is true also of his stationary sculptures, or "stabiles" as sculptor Hans Arp named them. But with the movements of the mobiles (so named by Marcel Duchamp), these invisible spaces become virtually their raison dtre.

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The element of true wit, and both the literal and figurative sense of lightness that informs Calder's work, may be partly to blame for his not always being taken weightily enough. As with the mobiles, apt response to Calder's art is a matter of delicate balance. Of course they are things of enjoyment and delight. But it misses the point not to feel the way they reinvent in their own fresh language essences of motion, unpredictability, intangible forces, natural structures, and sublime relational grace.

Actually a fair amount of serious responses to Calder's mobiles has been articulated over the years. Artists have never found his humor a stumbling block to taking the mobiles seriously enough. Their element of absurdity recommends them as art.

Among the most telling descriptions of the experience of Calder mobiles are those written by Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, and by Ben Nicholson, the British painter.

Sartre wrote at some length. In his discussion is this definition of a mobile: "Sculpture suggests movement, painting suggests depth or light. A `mobile' does not `suggest' anything: It captures genuine living movements and shapes them." Sartre goes on to emphasize the mobile's unpredictability as a man-made object, its action "determined by the time of day, the sun, the temperature or the wind...."

"I was talking with Calder one day in his studio," Sartre remembers, "when suddenly a `mobile' beside me, which until then had been quiet, became violently agitated. I stepped quickly back, thinking to be out of its reach. But then, when the agitation had ceased and it appeared to have relapsed into quiescence, its long, majestic tail, which until then had not budged, began mournfully to wave and, sweeping through the air, brushed across my face. These hesitations, resumptions, gropings, clumsinesses, th e sudden decisions, and above all that swan-like grace make of certain `mobiles' very strange creatures indeed, something midway between matter and life. At moments they seem endowed with an intention; a moment later they appear to have forgotten what they intended to do, and finish by merely swaying inanely."

NICHOLSON'S words are equally evocative. He had borrowed a Calder mobile once in Paris and attached it to the ceiling of a white room overlooking the Seine River. It was night. A breeze slowly turned the mobile in the light of an electric bulb. Nicholson watched as "a large black, six white, and one small scarlet, balls on their wires turned slowly in and out, around, above and below one another, with their shadows chasing, round the white walls in an exciting interchanging movement, suddenly hastening a s they turned the corners and disappearing, as they crossed the window, into the night it was not a work of art as many people think of a work of art - imprisoned in a gold frame or stone-dead on a pedestal... . But it was alive and that, after all, is not a bad qualification for a work of art."

To Sartre the mobile was surprising because it seemed half alive. To Nicholson it was, imaginatively, wholly alive, and this response from that particular artist is telling. Nicholson's own drawing sensibility was stimulated by (among other things) the kind of tense, vital line of motion described by a table-tennis ball smashed through the air or a billiard ball cued smartly across green beize. A drawn line traces a movement.

Calder used wire as if it were a drawing medium, but he did not use the flatness of paper; he did it in the space-dimensions of air. Originally he had, for amusement, made animals and acrobats using wire in this way for his miniature circus. His circus performances became renowned in the Paris art world. A film of such a performance shows how funny it was, and how clever. It also had an element of the unpredictable.

It was a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian (also a great inspiration to Nicholson) that set Calder on the road into abstract art - and into the invention of his mobiles.

He saw Mondrian's paintings, which consisted of abstract rectangles in primary colors with black and white. Mondrian did not approve when Calder suggested that these shapes might be interesting if "oscillated." This suggestion did not at all suit the intense, ascetic dedication to fixed verticals and horizontals that Mondrian preached and practiced; but it is intriguing how his art of renunciation offered a freeing impulse to the very different imagination of the American artist.

Some years later, Calder became a friend of the Spanish painter Joan Miro. Initially he did not grasp what Mirs improvisational fantasies were all about. Calder's mobiles seem much closer to Mirs work than to Mondrian's - and certainly both influenced him; but it was Mondrian who unwittingly jolted Calder out of merely ebullient playfulness and into his own brand of "abstract" visual poetry.

An exhibition of Calder's work (organized by New York's Whitney Museum, and recently staged at London's Royal Academy in its new galleries) once again impressed visitors with Calder's mix of down-to-earth practicality and cosmic fantasy. His mobiles spend much of their time in static repose - particularly in a modern gallery with few unplanned sources of air movement. They are not "dead" when they are still; they have a visual tension or poise, caught between the weighty and the weightless, articulated b y the springy leap and taut curves (like fishing rods) of the wires.

But Calder's mobiles are made to move, and visitors could have been encouraged more than they were to at least blow at them respectfully to see them lurch into life. One guard now and then obligingly set a particularly heavy-looking, earthbound piece revolving impressively. But it is sad when something that has to be touched for it to be what it was intended to be, has become too precious. The one thing Calder's art emphatically was not was "precious" in intention or aesthetic judgment - whatever its mar ket value may have inevitably become.

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