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Making sculpture move: “Triple Gong” (c.1948) by Alexander Calder (© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015)

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was the artist who made sculpture move. With the mobiles he started making in 1931, he took a static and solid form and lifted it into the air where it could be animated by gusts of wind or the movement of visitors in a gallery. And in doing so he sloughed off some of sculpture’s traditional earthbound heaviness and gave his work a sense of joyousness and levity. Even his moored pieces, usually made from arcs of steel, curve upwards as if straining to escape their roots. “The first inspiration I ever had was the cosmos, the planetary system,” Calder said, and he stayed true to it — his works float and shift in the void.

Calder was a broad-based artist. As well as his sculptures he was a painter (including designing liveries for BMW and an airliner), and printmaker, and he also spent years, rather like a model railway enthusiast, creating his own miniature circus figures out of wire and cloth so he could put on performances — the hobby grew and grew until the pieces of the Cirque Calder filled seven suitcases. Although both his parents were sculptors, and his grandfather created the statue of William Penn that sits on top of Philadelphia City Hall, Calder initially trained as a mechanical engineer, the legacy of which can be seen in the precision of his lines as well as the motorising of some of his mobiles. Some 100 works, in all his different media, are included in Tate Modern’s new survey of his work (November 11-April 3, 2016). It is the first major retrospective of his work here for 50 years.

The exhibition also offers the chance to see en masse what made Calder a key Modernist — a role that is often overlooked. His credentials, though, are immaculate. In 1926, after spells as a naval mechanic, draughtsman for the Edison Company, and timekeeper in a logging camp, Calder sailed to Paris to become an artist. There he found himself in the heart of Modernism. (He also found, on one of his transatlantic voyages, a wife — Louisa James, grandniece of Henry James and his brother, the philosopher William.) In Paris he became friends with Fernand Léger, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp.

It was Duchamp who christened his kinetic sculptures “mobiles” and Arp who named his stationary works “stabiles”. The mobiles, indeed, are very much like Arp paintings in three-dimensional form. Meanwhile, Calder made bent-wire portraits — a form he likened to drawing in space — of both Léger and Joan Miró. It was a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio (itself a work of art) in 1930 that convinced Calder of the merits of pure abstraction. The final affirmation of Calder’s immaculate connections was that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the catalogue essay for the 1946 Paris exhibition announcing the mobiles to the wider art world.

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