Calder After the War, Pace Gallery, London

Charles Darwent on Alexander Calder: The man who put the 'post' into modern

5.00

The art world grew smaller the day Calder first popped his sculptures in the post

On the face of it, Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp make an odd pair. Calder is plump, jolly and American: the famous Pathé film of him operating his 1927 Circus shows a 63-year-old kid in a red flannel shirt. Duchamp, by contrast, was sulphurously French and intellectual – the man whose urinal, Fountain, upended the aesthetic apple cart and bequeathed conceptual art to the world. That he might have influenced Calder – that it was Duchamp who, in 1931, came up with the word "mobile" for his friend's moving sculptures – is hard to credit.

And yet it is a fact, as is the ex-Dadaist's presence in a great new show, Calder After the War, at the Pace gallery in London. Calder moved back to New York from Paris in 1933; Duchamp, a long-time visitor, settled there in 1942. As a patriotic gesture, the American had stopped making sculpture from aluminium sheeting during the war, reasoning that it would be better used for bombers than for art. By 1945, Calder was left with a studio full of scraps.

Duchamp, visiting, saw the potential in these for a new kind of work – one that could be flat-packed in 18-inch-square boxes and posted to Paris on the recently opened transatlantic airmail service. This gave a whole new meaning to the word "mobile": Calder, a lover of double-entendres, was beguiled. The two men planned a show at the Galerie Louis Carré for the following year, the work in it to be sent by post.

And so Calder After the War starts from the happy point of swords being turned into ploughshares, the twin triumphs of America and modernity. The sculpture Calder made for the Carré show was necessarily more complex and less monolithic than his pre-war work had been, for the good reason that no single element could be longer than 18 inches.

Look at Baby Flat Top (1946) and you will see that its large, central oval has been bolted together out of four bits. The smaller elements are cut out from this, the wires from which they hang having kinks halfway along – actually, reversible clips that allow them to be folded in two for posting. Form is shaped by function, new technology, a new world. And yet these lovable, Miró-ish sculptures are more than that, and more than just technically complex.

Walk into the big, white, downstairs gallery at Pace and you will experience the emotion that Calders commonly make us feel: "happiness" is probably as good a word as any. Slowly, though, you realise that there is something more going on, and something less.

The mobiles aren't mobile. Or not very. Stand in front of Blue Feather or Scarlet Digitals waiting for them to move and you'll find yourself sighing. Come back 10 minutes later, though, and nothing is where you left it. As with Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, which is almost never struck by lightning, the power is in the potential.

What we are left imagining is the whole space a Calder would need to occupy if it did move, or if we could see it moving; a volume made all the more solid by being ethereal. Blue Feather and the like define mass by its absence. They look like cheery little critters – red crabs, blue cockerels, scorpions – but looking like things isn't really their point. As the man who wrote the catalogue essay for the Paris show pointed out, Calder's mobiles "signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves". The man's name was Jean-Paul Sartre.

So why do Calder's intellectual connections come as a surprise? In 1946, they certainly wouldn't have done. People remembered his long French phase, his membership of the Paris avant-garde group, Abstraction-Création, the fact that his red-yellow-blue palette had come from a visit to the studio of his friend Piet Mondrian. Two things happened to obscure this memory.

The first is that Calder joined his work in becoming mobile, flying around the world in aeroplanes. He was the first truly global artist, making work everywhere from Argentina to Ahmedabad. As often, ubiquity bred contempt. The second is that American abstraction came to mean Jackson Pollock – tortured, chain-smoking men making art that was part object, part performance. There was no room for cheeriness in this new imperium, even if that cheeriness was merely the vector for asking questions, as Calder does, about the way the universe works.

Einstein at least understood this. When Calder's motorised mobile, A Universe, was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the man who rewrote the universe stood transfixed in front of it for its entire 43-minute cycle. This show is extremely enjoyable but it is also extremely important, allowing us to recall another Alexander Calder, one too long and too often forgotten.

 

To 7 June (020-3206 7600)

Critic's Choice

Pop goes the Tate: Book in advance to enjoy this Roy Lichtenstein crowd-pleaser, which includes the pop artist's familiar comic-strip pieces (above) as well as lesser-known gems, at London's Tate Modern (to 27 May). RB Kitaj: Obsessions shows over 70 paintings by the American artist. At Pallant House, Chichester (to 16 Jun).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago