Calder’s sculpture helped spawn modern art – Jamestown Sun
Movement draws attention to itself. It is mathematical as well as artistic. It’s scientific and natural. It can create beauty as well as chaos. In the art world, however, it took a Pennsylvania-born artist, Alexander Calder, in the early 20th century to add movement (kinesis) to the art world.
Considered “the father of kinetic sculpture”, Calder’s family was artistic and creative. In his biography, he reportedly started out with a pair of pliers in his hand, making doll jewelry for his sister.
Like so many artists of his time, contact with other artists inspired change and inclusion. Calder’s greatest influence was Piet Mondrian, whose paintings were blocks of color in black lines arranged in ordered constructions on canvas. Calder took the vivid colors that Mondrian “suspended” on his canvases and imagined them floating in the air.
Like many of his contemporaries, including the “father” of Cubism, Pablo Picasso, Calder was embracing new concepts in art. Combining Mondrian’s special options and Picasso’s abstraction, Calder saw sculpture as a way to give art wings to soar from the pedestal. He could adopt the colors and asymmetrical balance of Mondrian, but instead of making the elements rectilinear, they could be cubist, more abstract.
Calder’s mobiles stopped the audience in their tracks. Heads held high, mouths open and if there was the slightest breeze, the sound of metal shapes bumping into each other would transform visitors for hours. He cut the brightly colored solid shapes out of metal and lightly bent wire to suspend the shapes to maximize the illusion of flight. One of his largest stabiles is in the Chicago Art Institute as well as works in nearby Schaumberg.
His influence was quickly felt in floral design. Accepted as an “official” ribbon of the National Council of State Garden Clubs Inc. The mid-20th century saw a number of artistic additions to official (accredited) flower shows. Calder’s concept of mobiles was one. Floral displays began to include “modern” designs, an almost total “line” with a few flowers or plant matter hanging in the air. Mondrian’s asymmetrical color concept also appeared in flower show niches. Between the late 1950s and 1980s, it was lovely to hear comments from visitors when they encountered these linear, modern designs: “Is that a flower arrangement? Sounds like a piece of junk to me!!!” (The reference he was referring to was from one of my own “Creativity” ribbon winners, and his remark was among the kindest. Hearing the feedback was always a entertaining part of flower shows at the time.)
Like Calder’s originals, the ladies or gents who crafted their “Creativity” award works caused a stir as people stood back with their mouths hanging open, trying to figure out what it was, and why the hell anyone would someone put something like THIS in a flower show and label it as a flower arrangement? But they were and still are considered for specific ribbons.
As all great art is supposed to do, these mobiles (whether brightly painted steel shapes on wires or an allium flower hanging from a fishing line) prompted questions, discussions, curiosity and, better still, conflicts. Twentieth-century artists sought to create conversation and challenge the status quo. Instead of writing about it, they painted, sculpted and even gave movement to what had been the most traditional examples of the art. Calder, Mondrian, Picasso and others paved the way for the modernism we know today as “mid-century modern”.
If anyone has an article for this column, please send it to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.