Alexander Calder floats above it all

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Alexander Calder floats above it all

Is mysticism such a crime in the modern age of art? Whatever happened to good old fantasy and wonder or all the qualities in art that used to embrace and soothe the wounded heart and give such joy to people? Are artworks intended as aesthetic objects no longer considered as valuable?
If viewers at the Kukje Gallery could see its current show without knowing the works on display were by Alexander Calder ― a formal innovator of mobile art ― would they feel different knowing he is one of the most admired artists of the 20th century? Would the experience have the same effect on them?
The answer may be ― quite unlikely. Indeed the show might even be perceived as artistic cliches.
That’s what art is about ― value and originality. Blame it on Duchamp who irreversibly changed the concept of art with his display of a urinal in an art gallery. But after all we are living in a different period from Calder’s heyday, where the meaning of art transcends style and amusement. Art today shocks, provokes, and turns the world upside down, deconstructing our reality.
Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. In the case of Calder, it’s little bit of both, since his works remind us of what contemporary art has been missing, while leaving us with a craving for meaning in formalist aesthetics.
“Nobody in art would make mobile or big steel sculptures similar to his works now and be taken seriously,” says Alexander S.C. Rower, Calder’s grandson and a director of the Calder Foundation in New York, who made an endowment for the artist’s exhibition at Kukje yesterday. “People would immediately think they are derivative of Calder.”
His works, dynamic mobiles set in motion by wind currents that play with mechanical potentials, launched a long-lasting trend for artists using technology in art ― like Paik Nam-June or Joseph Beuys. Calder’s earlier works, an abstract form of dangling wires, strings or metal rods, revolutionized the art of sculpture by putting into reality the artists’ desire for motion. His kinetic works were historically significant in that they were the brainchild of industrialization and born out of an increasingly technological culture.
The exhibition at Kukje illuminates Calder’s role as one of the great formal innovators of 20th-century art, and concentrates on his mobiles ― both hanging and standing ― from smaller works the artist had given out as gifts to monumental sculptures made from bolted sheets of steel in public parks and plazas.
Calder was born in 1898 in Pennsylvania into an artistic family. Before attending Art Students League in New York he trained as a mechanical engineer. As a freelance artist for the National Police Gazette in 1925, he spent two weeks sketching at the circus, which the artist later explored more in depth in Paris through animal caricatures and performances of his miniature circus.
Calder’s sculptures ― both mobile and “stabile” ― were loved for their playful, mystical qualities. They were often sought after as public monuments to adorn corporate buildings, as they breathed wit and a playful air into the solid structure of urban constructions.
An intriguing aspect of Calder’s mobiles is perhaps his understanding of mechanical meticulousness using disparate symmetries that look like they are random cutouts of metal plates.
“He calculated relative imbalance into every one of his works,” Mr. Rowler said, pointing at the two small dots the artist had placed near the disc center as the point of axis in his 1953 “Yellow Disc,” a painted steel mobile supported by a freestanding base.
One drawback that hinders viewers’ appreciation of Calder’s works in gallery settings is the lack of air currents, which are needed to move the objects. The only option organizers suggest to explore moving dimensions is through blowing.
In the end mysticism may not be such a big crime in modern ages. While the style of Calder’s works may be out of fashion in modern contexts, he is still the formal innovator, one of the only mobile artists of his time.
There is also something helplessly nostalgic about his shapes. Their connotations are directly related to memories we grew up with from childhood ― the seesaws, the toys, the wind chimes and the mobiles. With no offense to the artist’s reputation, Calder’s mobiles seem perfectly suited to a Christmas season; he should even be awarded as the holiday artist of the year.

by Park Soo-mee

The exhibition “Alexander Calder” is open through Feb. 7. For more information call Kukje Gallery at (02) 735-8449 or check the gallery Web site at
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