I thought I knew something about 20th century art. I’d heard of Alexander Calder, and in the ‘sixties, when I came to artistic consciousness, Calder was still working and his mobiles were emblems of modernism. So I went to Tate Modern’s Calder exhibition and realised I knew almost nothing about him.
One of the newspaper reviews said it’s the happiest exhibition in London. It is. He made delighful wire sculptures in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, portraits of his artist friends in Paris and figures from the circus. His interest in the circus continued throughout his life (he died in 1976) and there’s a film of him with his moving models of circus animals and acrobats on a toy scale, down on his hands and knees playing with them like your grand-dad.
Movement was essential to his mobiles: the clue is in the name. I knew about the hanging mobiles with their biomorphic vanes, delicately balanced and moving gently in the air, but not about the standing mobiles, like the one in the picture, which has a small motor and moves through several cycles, like a solar system. (Planetary motion was one of his inspirations.) Nor did I know about his collaboration with musicians, some of whom, like John Cage, took the idea of random change from him and put it into their compositions.
You would therefore expect to see movement in this Tate Modern show, but, as many of the comments on the comment board complained, you didn’t, because these works are too fragile. All you got were five minute videos on little screens beside Calder’s automota, and none of the musical collaborations.
The exhibition was a museum curator’s presentation of rare Calder works, wrapped in cotton wool for us to bow down before in reverence. All the fun had been taken out of them.
I return to my theme of the stifling effect of value upon art: these works were too valuable to be set in motion. OK then, homage to Calder demands that the originals be left in their fusty, padlocked cellars for academics to peer at, and that engineers be commissioned to make reproductions of them for display. Then we would get what Calder was about, not this po-faced exhibition at Tate Oldfashioned.