Alexander Calder knew that creative tensions can give rise to artistic innovation.

In 1930, the legendary American sculptor visited the Paris studio of painter Piet Mondrian. Struck by the appearance of painted rectangles of cardboard that Mondrian arranged on the walls of his studio as part of his compositional experimentation, Calder suggested that the Dutch artist could further bring them to life by making them oscillate. Mondrian disagreed but Calder took up the challenge. He invented the kinetic sculpture, or mobile, and changed the course of art history in the process.

“Calder is such an interesting character, very different from other artists of his time,” says Miranda Wallace, one of the curators behind Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor, on show at the NGV.

“He didn’t care about artistic hierarchies. He seemingly put equal creative energy into making wire jewellery, household objects, paintings as well as his famous sculptures. He was very interested in the circus – the way performers would appear on high wires within the enormous space of the circus tent was very inspirational to him.”

Wallace says that kinetic art connected Calder to a group of artists who were working in America and Europe. “All through his career, Calder explored the idea of movement and its relationship with the viewer,” she says. “So much contemporary art is about this sense of enveloping the viewer and the art object, about immersing the viewer in the art experience. But [Calder] was on that path back in the 1930s.”

Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor, presented in partnership with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is the largest-ever presentation of the sculptor’s work in Australia. The exhibition brings together more than 100 pieces that span the artist’s career, from his childhood as the son of artists in Pennsylvania to his time as a major artist, creating standing sculptures, or stabiles, that still occupy public spaces in New York, Chicago, Italy and more. There is a miniature dog and a duck made from brass sheet that an 11-year old Calder created as gifts for his parents. There are the pieces of jewellery, necklaces and brooches lovingly rendered from brass, nickel or silver wire, and presented to family members or friends within the avant-garde circles in which the artist and his wife, Louisa James Calder, moved.

But the exhibition is also a celebration of Calder’s mobiles – works like Four Black Bottoms and Six Reds (1957), dangling red-and-black forms that emphasise the space and light between them, and Black Mobile with Hole (1954), a series of black shapes that hover in the air, giving the impression of an otherworldly creature. Much modernist sculpture is heavy and monumental. But Calder’s mobiles are jaunty and graceful. They extend their weightlessness to the viewer by simply gliding and shimmying midair.

“Calder’s work is full of joy and playfulness and is very accessible, but it also has a very rigorous undercurrent – it’s all about the relationship between the viewer and the artwork,” Wallace says.

“His wire sculptures in the late ’20s were weightless – just lines in space, purely abstract. They are about shaping space in this very light way. In the same way that great architecture can profoundly effect your embodied experience, Calder’s work is very thoughtful, it slows you down and makes you think about the present.”

“You can see that connection between Calder and the minimalist sculptors of the 1960s and ’70s. But unlike the minimalists, who were very theatrical, Calder’s work is very quiet – it asks you to reflect,” she says. Calder also helped popularise the biomorphic form– a signature of Marc Newson, Japanese-American architect Isamu Noguchi and other modern voices in industrial design.

“He also championed the mid-century aesthetic that continues to be very influential. He liberated the idea of sculpture from heavy mass, which is hugely important in terms of how form is understood. At the moment, there aren’t many exhibitions that offer viewers such a purely aesthetic experience. Calder’s work is surprising and delightful. It takes us in many different directions.”

Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor shows at the NGV until August 4, 2019.

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