Back in the summer of 2014 I admired an installation at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice, by Belgian Artist Arnie Quinze, a Tribute to Alexander Calder. In one way the work did not seem particularly about Calder at all. After all, it was Calder who invented the mobile; the work in Nice was static. But having just visited the Calder exhibition at Tate Modern, I believe I can see the connection.
Calder was born in 1898 in Pennsylvania; his parents were both artists but knowing the insecurity that this can bring, they encouraged him to train as a mechanical engineer. So, his artistic career did not really start until his mid twenties. The Tate exhibition concentrates on the early works and mobiles, many of which have not been on public display for decades. The result is both playful and joyous. Just what anybody needs to help counteract a week of grim news. Until now, my knowledge of Calder had been almost entirely through photographs. That is no way to see any sculpture but particularly not sculptures such as these where the relationship with the surrounding space is so important.
Before going, I would have expected the defining feature of Calder’s work to be in the movement, as the name mobile suggests. This expectation was heightened by the title of the Exhibition – Performing Sculptures. The movement is of course there; very gently, at times almost imperceptibly, the different elements sway and twist in the air currents. For me, it was not the movement which I found so arresting, though of course it was important, but the shadows. As I walked round the exhibition, I found myself concentrating on the shadows on the wall, rather than the solid and coloured hanging shapes that made them. In some cases the shadows somehow seem more convincing that the real thing; a piece of twisted wire becomes a man’s head.
I suspect this may have been what fascinated Quinze as well, for it was the shadows and reflections of his soaring wood constructions that I found so interesting in Nice. Of course with shadows, the creative achievement is shared in a small part by whoever sets up the lighting. The works will inevitably behave differently in the gallery than in Calder’s studio. But the Tate has done a splendid job. In some cases, the shadows were sharply defined. In others they appeared absent until you noticed that they were falling on the floor rather than the wall. In others the positioning of the lights allowed some, but not all, parts of the sculpture to cast a shadow, so that what you saw on the wall and the metal and wire reality appeared as two different works in dialogue.
Unfortunately the shadows do not appear in the available photographs – perhaps it is the flash photography that eliminates them. The day I went, the photo police appeared particularly diligent so frustratingly I cannot show you examples. To see what I mean you will need to visit.
For me one of the tests of a good art exhibition is whether it has the ability to make you perceive things differently. As well as being cheering, the Tate exhibition meets that criterion. In his later works Calder moved from the geometric to more organic forms. Sitting here as I write this, I can see the shadow of a tree on the wall opposite, though not the tree itself. The unseen tree must be moving. I look at it and think of Calder looking at something similar.