Before John Cage: Alexander Calder’s Great Grandson on Calder’s Experimentation in Music and Sound
On the occasion of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new exhibition, “Collecting Calder,” I am reminded of my conversation about Alexander Calder’s music and sound experiments with his great grandson Gryphon Rower-Upjohn (who is himself a musician). While so many of us are familiar with Calder’s fantastic mobiles and outdoor sculptures, few are aware of Calder’s early work with experimental music. For Calder, incorporating movement was not only ground-breaking for sculpture, but also a catalyst for innovations in music that predate John Cage’s work by 20 years. The Whitney’s collection is the largest repository of Alexander Calder’s work in the world, and this exhibition offers a not-to-be-missed look at Calder’s vast and influential oeuvre. Read the full interview with Gryphon Rower-Upjohn below.
Christine Kuan: Calder was born in 1898, but remains one of the most popular artists of today over 100 years later. Why do you think people love his work so much?
Gryphon Rower-Upjohn: It is difficult to imagine that during the initial stage of my great-grandfather’s career, his work was so radical that it was critically deemed to fall entirely outside the realm of “art.” This is one of the great paradoxes of Calder’s career: as he became extremely famous and internationally celebrated from the late 1950s through his death in 1976, his stature as a leading artist in the Paris avant-garde of the 1930s was overshadowed. Calder said that “art should not be lugubrious;” perhaps there is a certain lightness, an insouciant flavor in his work that allows it to step gracefully into our own time.
CK: In your article, “Calder and Sound,” you write about Calder’s “receptivity to accidental phenomena,” and this notion of chance remains extremely pertinent to artists working now. How do you feel Calder’s legacy is felt in contemporary art?
GRU: Calder worked in a studio without music or other people—only the sounds of mobiles clanging in the rafters and gongs striking at unpredictable moments broke the silence. It is important to understand that Calder made chance compositions with percussive objects 20 years before John Cage’s innovations with chance and metal. The first hanging mobile, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/33), creates avant-garde music initiated by the viewer’s intervention. My great-grandfather was a visionary of the increasingly blurred, intermingling categories of art, which in our “post-structural” time have opened up even more. His mobiles profoundly shaped the “open form” movements in visual art, music, architecture, even literature.
CK: Some people are not aware of Calder’s experimentations with sound and music. What was most important about this aspect of Calder’s work in relationship to his other work with mobiles, stabiles, etc.?
GRU: Calder employed sound as he did color—as a means of varying elements and enhancing the disparity within a composition. He was involved in many projects where sound played an essential role, including collaborations with Martha Graham and Virgil Thomson. I have identified nearly four dozen noise-mobiles that intentionally collide to produce resonance and envelope the viewer. Considering his immense oeuvre (thousands of sculptures, nearly 23,000 works documented in all media), noise-mobiles are a rarer breed.
CK: Calder is exhibited everywhere—in public spaces, parks, galleries, and in special exhibitions globally. What is unique about this exhibition at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen?
GRU: In this exhibition, Calder’s noise-mobiles are highlighted. Not since his 1952 exhibition “Gongs and Towers” at Curt Valentin gallery in New York has sound been a focus. Triple Gong (c. 1948), a work displayed in Düsseldorf, has red tendril-like wires plunging down through space and perking up to terminate in small metal cylinders. These cylinders (beaters) come into plane with three brass gongs hung in a sequence of pitches. Calder applied this technique throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, what I call his “refined” period when mobiles breathed independently and yet in agreement, so to speak, with their gong supplements. I’ve begun to trace the evolution of these noise-mobiles from the late 1920s and early 1930s—a time when he employed percussion and noise-makers in Cirque Calder and he was also involved in a deep kinship with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse—through his death in 1976. Although he produced a precious number of sound works, it is significant that he returned to the issue of sound throughout his career.
CK: Calder was an innovator and historic films of him really capture his sense of joy, youth, and play. The Foundation was one of our first nonprofit partners to share images of Calder’s work with the public through Artsy, how do you think Calder would view the Internet and startup technology efforts like Artsy if he were alive today?
GRU: My great-grandfather was resolutely curious. I think it is reasonable to assume he would harness cutting-edge technology just as he innovated with other materials and media. There is a story that in the summer of 1955, Calder was commissioned to make a mobile for the University of Venezuela. The architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva remarked that the mobile would not be hung in the main auditorium; the ceiling was occupied with ribbons of acoustical reflectors. Calder responded, “Let us play with these acoustical reflectors.” Working with a team of acoustical engineers, he designed an acoustic ceiling made from large, colorful panels of plywood—some 30 feet long—tilted in horizontal orientations to reflect sound.
See “Alexander Calder: Avant-Garde in Motion” at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany, on view through January 12, 2014.
More info: Alexander Calder Foundation
Photo: Gryphon Rower-Upjohn by Mekko Harjo, see GryphonRue