A fitting setting for a great work of art

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda

Born in Philadelphia in 1898, Alexander Calder created elegant, playful kinetic sculptures. His work, “Back from Rio” (1959), donated by Ruth Cross to the college in 1967 and located in in the Science Center quad, is one such example.

The basis of Calder’s work originates from an appreciation for craftsmanship instilled by his grandfather, who sculpted the statue of William Penn atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, and his background in descriptive geometry, applied kinetics and mechanical engineering. Playing off this background, in 1930, as concepts in theoretical physics began to be infused with mainstream conscience, the idea of cosmic relationships — the ways in which objects relate to each other, and how order and equilibrium is established in these relationships — became appealing to Calder.

Whereas shocking the bourgeoisie was the passion of many other twentieth century abstractionist movements (Dadaism and Surrealism among others were birthed from this sentiment), Calder was not interested in shock. At most, the Surrealists left a just a few residual marks. Some hints of Surrealist figural and chance-driven elements are two. In 1931 Calder joined the Paris-based group “Abstraction-Création,” where he associated with Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp, among others.

A chance meeting with Joan Miró in Paris, who was not a member of the group, arguably had the most lasting impact on Calder. They went on to become lifelong friends and share a mutual influence on each others’ work. This is evident in comparison between Calder’s lithograph, “Blue” (1969), and Miró’s “La Magie Quotidienne” (1968). There is a striking similarity in the awareness of compositional balance, color, playful naiveté and precision working in harmony to create bold, simple images. Brancusi and Giacometti were influences as well, Brancusi for his solid and contained abstractions, and Giacometti for his linear tension.

A visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio later in the 1930s introduced the concept of total abstraction into Calder’s work, though rather than Mondrian’s paintings, it was his studio with its walls adorned with cutouts of rectangles that interested Calder. The arrangement of geometric shapes on a two-dimensional plane made Calder wonder what it would be like for those shapes to become entities with the ability to move, much like how the figures in many of Miró’s paintings also seemed to be imbued with a sense of motion.

“How fine it would be if everything moved. Why must art be static? You look at an abstraction, sculpted or painted, an entirely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect but it is always still. The next step is sculpture in motion,” he reflected after his visit.

The act of simplifying complex things and making the simple complex fascinated Calder, and this interest in combination with Miró’s figural influences and Mondrian’s ascetic abstraction shows in the delicate, balanced intricate movements of his mobiles and lithe static sculptures that seem to be at once in a state of eternal flux and stillness. These conceptual and visual themes are clear to see in “Back from Rio.”

Here, a sculpture created by a Philadelphia native, who created art within the humanistic and scientific traditions, is surrounded by both buildings that house the sciences and humanities. It is only in a natural setting where such a sculpture, mechanically controlled yet dynamically spontaneous, can be realized. Mobiles are in part about how they react and interact to and with their environment. To appreciate them fully, his sculptures’ motion need to be seen in relation to its repose, and in turn to the repose of its surroundings — the mobile contemplated with the stable. This interaction in “Back from Rio,” as a mobile-stable combinatorial sculpture that fuses the static and dynamic and integrates motion into a dual-entity, is especially important.

In all successful examples of his kinetic work, there exists a mechanical and visual balance achieved through a multiplicity that lies within a encompassing structural and visual unity — this is where the figural and abstract influences come in. In “Back from Rio” this is manifested through the planar sheets of steel attached to thin wires and joints about a central pivot point on the apex of the base. In essence, Calder achieves a conceptual and kinetic harmony by opposing the heavy, solid establishing static component with the multiplicity of the light, flitting mobile. Yet there is an angular relationship between the constituents as well. Two sides of the stable pyramidal element is bent like the back of a hunched figure, and this is mirrored in the angles of the white triangular elements of the mobile. The geometric formality of the red triangular counterbalance also mirrors one of the ridges of the base as well to serve as a connection between the grounded and airborne sculptural elements.

Scholar Patrick Heron writes that a mobile moves in a rhythm, “in an exact musical, not metaphorical sense.” This is the core of “Back from Rio.” Calder achieves a formal purity of motion as an element of form in his kinetic sculptures through carefully considered balance of hanging painted steel plates that is invoked only by the wind to form a type of visual music in which forms – triangles, polygons, wires — convey themselves in space to the viewer rather than to the listener.

There is a quote by Einstein, in which upon observing a Calder work in an exhibition for forty minutes in 1943 he remarked, “I wish I had thought of that.” “Back from Rio” rewards the same patience.

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