Man on a wire: The playful simplicity of Alexander Calder

The wonder of Calder's work with wire, on display at the Tate, is that their beauty makes you laugh.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When my wife saw the recent show of Picasso’s sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she noticed something seldom seen in an art gallery. Everyone was smiling: at the bull made from a bicycle saddle and handlebars; at the bronze baboon whose face is an amalgam of two toy cars; at the goat with massive dugs, inches from the earth, curved and solid as yams. In this Alexander Calder show, there are animals, too, and it is hard to keep the pleasure out of your face. For example, the diminutive dog whose outsized, elongated head – big ears and open, panting jaw – is a sprung clothes peg. A corgi, I’d say. Even Queen Victoria might be amused.

In Goldfish Bowl (1929), there are two prognathous wire goldfish, large and small, as sulky as pike. Calder has caught perfectly their ruthless hard mouths, as it were doubly outlined with lipstick; the fish resemble matrons of America in search of the restroom and malicious gossip. Above them are scrolls of stylised billows and, to their left, a long, wavering ladder of weed. A wonderful Leopard (1927) lies with two simple wire hoops for its raised haunches, but its long body is a tightly curled length of wire, with a necklace of crowded loops that represent the leopard’s vertebrae and the leopard’s spots. Its flat cat’s face is represented by the dressmaker’s hook from the hook and eye, which elsewhere Calder uses as the sign for male genitalia.

His Elephant (1927) is another brilliant drawing with wire. Whereas the leopard is tautly pulled tight – those loops couldn’t be smaller – the elephant is baggier. Its trunk is a loose roulade of dull silver wire. All four square legs are a single length of wire, quasi-crenellated as it moves from one leg to the next. But the genius is in Calder’s depiction of the slobbering, triangular lower lip. Here, in a sculpture where everything else is joined-up writing, the lip is a bit of wire left hanging, loose, open. You look and you laugh – at the accuracy, at the economy of means, and because this art is cognate with the cartoon.

Of all artists’ signatures, Calder’s is the one nearest to that of a cartoonist. What these wire hybrid drawing-sculptures have in common with the cartoon is economy, exactitude and a witty semiology that depends on the admission of exaggeration and caricature – and the desire to make you laugh. Calder’s animals are up there with Picasso’s, with David Jones’s, with Giacometti’s self-ironising Twiglet Dog (1951), a spindly Afghan hound, sagging like a skein of wool, so you feel that you could wind it off into a ball. (The dog as comic depression, rather than the genuine “black dog”.)

The French novelist Henry de Montherlant said that happiness writes white. Tolstoy said that happy families are all happy in the same way. Calder gives happiness good press. Far from being a monotonous, dull artist, he is both abundant and unstoppably various. As a young man, before establishing himself in Paris, he worked commercially for the Gould Manufacturing Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, designing “a new line of action toys”. His talent isn’t injured by the snobbery of seriousness. He became famous for performances of Calder’s Circus. The contemporary critic Michel Seuphor wrote: “We would wildly applaud the tossing, from one man to another, of the acrobats’ white handkerchief or the picking up of the dung after the chariot race.” That dung is what differentiates Calder from the cartoonist and the toymaker: helpless, uncensored realism.

Calder went on to design a customised colour scheme for BMW-Calder Car in 1975. Even aeroplanes were part of his remit: Flying Colors (1973) for a DC-8 jet, 157 feet long, and Flying Colors of the United States (1975) for a 727-200 jet. He designed rugs, jewellery and cutlery. He made exquisite “stabiles”, monumental sculptures that effortlessly avoid monumentality: for instance, Heads and Tail (1965), which stands outside the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Without being a literal cat, it is a cat – with more than one head and seven legs. It is made from sheet steel painted black. Who else but Calder could have made this unrelenting material so fluid? There is the cat wanting to be fed, speaking Chinese (“mkgnao”), tail upright, all tangling, touselling tribadism. Calder – the greatest show on earth and that isn’t just his wonderful circus.

This Tate Modern exhibition ­concentrates on the wire sculptures, the wire portraits and the mobiles. It focuses on the shifts from the static, to the motorised, to the mobiles. There is only a fraction of his output here but it presents a coherent approach that will leave you, after two or three hours, exhausted by the brilliance on show. Here we can see wire portraits, all from 1930, of Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Edgard Varèse and Amédée Ozenfant. They capture a likeness related to caricature but which escapes it. How? It is partly that we are acutely aware of difficulty surmounted. Calder’s chosen medium is wire, with its residual recalcitrance, which he uses as easily as the graphite of a pencil. It is like seeing the continuous line of a Matisse drawing. And although techniques are shared from portrait to portrait – the rough, oval outline of the face lying behind the features; a figure of eight for lips and chin; a circle for the chin – the medium bends (le mot juste) to the requirements of each sitter’s face.

Léger’s moustache is somewhere between a broken comb and an agglomeration of dead matches. The eyes are crucial, and differently rendered in every case – from the delicious dead eyes (and thin mouth) of Varèse to the black, Spanish whorls of Miró (and his lank strands of hair and the long philtrum under his nose). You watch the wire on its fluent journey – from the ears to the iris and pupil, then back out and up into the eyebrows and down to the nose. It is like watching water find the easiest route. Voilà, eso Miró.

Calder’s way with wire encompasses action, too. There is a perfect portrait of Helen Wills (1928), kitted out in a Teddy Tinling-style skirt and her trademark visor. The skirt is a simple panel with an all-round hem. Her breasts are an infinity sign – a figure of eight on its side – but her body is as uninflected by femininity as you might expect from a tennis champion whose racket is an extension of her reaching right arm (the junction is marked by a crinkle in the wire). She is reaching to her right to return a low ball on the half-volley. Calder’s simplicity is surprisingly informative.

There are several wire acrobats here. They have none of the vague gloom that characterises Picasso’s pink-and-grey saltimbanques standing about in the sunless, empty landscape. One female summons applause with her raised arms and reveals her armpit hair. Her quite weighty breasts are represented not by a simple circle but by an outwardly curving line from the armpit, a line that captures their volume.

In The Brass Family (1929), Calder gives us a pyramid held by and balanced on the male strongman. His armpit hair is also Calder’s wire signature. The composition uses thicker wire and thinner wire. The strongman is constructed of the thick wire. His breast bone extrudes and is broken in the middle, perhaps to suggest effort and breathing. At the extremes of his arms are a girl on the left and a boy on the right – the impossibility minimised and cheated by the exclusive use of the thinnest wire for both. On his upper arms are two adolescents, male and female, through whom run the thick wire from the strongman at the base. These two support a woman, horizontal, on her side, breasts hanging down. Her upper side is a continuation of the thick wire. Presumably, she is Mrs Strongman. Doing a one-handed handstand on her waist is a young boy, made entirely of the finer wire. It is an early chef-d’oeuvre. And if it looks backward to the circus, it also looks forward to Calder’s mobiles.

Common to both, essential to both, is the conception of balance. There are a couple of wire sculptures that suggest the trembling effort to maintain balance – especially the one involving two males, in which one is balancing one-handed on the head of the other – but mainly Calder chooses to occlude the effort and celebrate the certainty and poise, as, of course, the performers do.

This brings us to the mobiles, the telos of this show, in which balance is all. These sculptures are difficult to describe, almost impossible, in fact. But let me first try with a drawing, Many (1931). It doesn’t even reproduce satisfactorily, as simple as it is. Calder was always candid about the universe as his source of inspiration, dating from the epiphany he experienced as a merchant seaman: “It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch – a coil of rope – I saw the beginning of a fiery, red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other . . . It left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system.” Many is black ink on thick laid paper: a hollow moon is towards the bottom right; over and up to the left are beautifully placed black planets of varying size. That’s it. You can’t describe how elegant, how inevitable, this is. It could not be otherwise, though it is irregular. It has all the inevitability of a pattern, without any observable pattern. You have to see it.

The mobiles, too, have to be seen. I had three favourites. The 1946 work Untitled (Mobile with N Degrees of Freedom) differs from most other Calder mobiles because nothing – no objects, no discs, no spheres – is suspended from the wires. There are only the wires, arranged in a canopy of open safety pins. In the other mobiles, these hangers are both visible and notionally invisible. Here, they are present, strikingly bare in contrast to the red, blue and yellow abstract “dinosaur” that supports them and may have eaten the leaves. Red Sticks (1942) is a series of red lacquered sticks suspended from each other and diminishing in size. At the bottom are two wooden weights. Somehow, looking at this, the solar system gets assimilated into a coolie carrying heavy objects on a yoke, buckets of water – here, two wooden planets.

It is impossible to resist natural analogies. Foliage, petals and parted feathers offer up their shapes. Snow Flurry I (1948) has a title that makes sense but, before I saw the label, it looked to me like a great cabbage white, complete with proboscis, tendrils, aerials and those paned butterfly wings in every unadorned wire. Go. See for yourself.

“Alexander Calder” runs until 3 April 2016. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

Free trial CSS