“I went to see Mondrian. I was very much moved by Mondrian’s studio, large, beautiful and irregular in shape as it was, with the walls painted white and divided by black lines and rectangles of bright colour, like his paintings. It was very lovely, with a cross-light (there were windows on both sides), and I thought at the time how fine it would be if everything there moved; though Mondrian himself did not approve of this idea at all.”
—Alexander Calder, “Mobiles” in The Painter’s Object, 1937
Following his visit to Piet Mondrian’s apartment in 1930, Alexander Calder threw himself into his work and for three weeks straight, dedicated himself to purely abstract paintings. He would soon apply abstraction to sculptural works and a year later he created his first mobiles. Mondrian is one of several prominent artist friends from the Parisian avant-garde who played a key role in shaping the American artist’s career. The illustrious circle of artists that surrounded Calder throughout his career is one subject explored in “Alexander Calder: Avant-Garde in Motion” on view (through Jan. 12, 2014) at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. Organized in collaboration with the Calder Foundation, the show investigates Calder’s journey into abstraction and kinetic sculpture, and includes key artworks by his famous contemporaries.
In the preface to a 1931 Calder catalogue, another friend, Fernand Léger, offered his praise for Calder, and formally welcomed him to the upper ranks of the avant-garde: “Looking at these new works—transparent, objective, exact—I think of Satie, Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi, Arp—these unchallenged masters of unexpressed and silent beauty. Calder is in the same family.”
In the fall of 1931 another friend, Marcel Duchamp, coined the term mobile to describe the kinetic sculptures that Calder had begun to make. Subsequently, Jean Arp questioned what Calder would call his stationary sculptures and suggested stabiles. The terms stuck and came to define the two groups of sculptural works that the artist made for the rest of his career.
Calder shared with Arp the tendency to employ an organic language in his work, a characteristic also found in one of his best friend’s work, Joan Miró. Calder’s lifelong friendship with Miró began in Paris in the late 1920s. Both embraced the cosmos (both artists had “Constellation” series) and biomorphism in their works, and several exhibitions have been organized around the pair due to their similarities in aesthetics and their esteem for one another. For their 1961 exhibition “Miró-Calder” at Perls Gallery in New York, Miró wrote the following poem about his friend:
My old Sandy, this burly man with the
soul of a nightingale who blows on mobiles
this nightingale who makes his nest
in his mobiles
these mobiles scraping the bark
of the orange-coloured
where my great friend Sandy lives
(reprinted in [Margit Rowell (ed.)], Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1986, p. 255).
Like the man himself, Calder’s sculptures are individual masterpieces, yet they are enhanced when among friends.
“Alexander Calder: Avant-Garde in Motion,” on view at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, through January 12, 2014.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory