I would venture that there are few people for whom an encounter with Alexander Calder’s work — whether they be the larger mobiles or the smaller, more intricate trinkets — does not elicit a smile and a childlike wonder that something can be made from a sum total of nothing. With an economy both of means and, often, of material, his mobiles, sculptures, paintings and objects pulsate with energy, semi-abstract forms that, depending on one’s position and perspective, are prone to taking on anthropomorphic states of being, on the cusp of springing into action.
The newly opened “Alexander Calder: From the Story River to the Sky,” through September 9, at Hauser & Wirth’s expansive outpost in Somerset, England, is no exception. Organized in collaboration with the Calder Foundation, it brings together nearly 100 pieces, from the 1930s through to the 1960s, including six large-scale outdoor sculptures that bask in the sunshine pouring in over Durslade Farm’s grounds.
In 1933, Calder and his wife Louisa purchased a dilapidated farmhouse set on 18 acres of land in Roxbury, Connecticut, which would become their home and Calder’s studio, expanding over the years to accommodate both their expanding family and Calder’s own ambitions as an artist. An extensive amount of objects are on loan directly from the Calders’ Roxbury house, and it’s not surprising that they feel immediately at home in these new rural surroundings in Somerset. According to Sandy Rower, president of the Calder Foundation and the artist’s grandson, the exhibition grew out of his own initial encounter back in October 2017 with the architecture and interiors of Hauser & Wirth’s spaces, which bear a strong affinity to a studio and storage space his grandfather used to own in the French countryside. He imagined a red mobile hanging from the gabled roof of the barn, the first gallery space in the complex, and that’s exactly how the show opens, with “Red Maze I,” 1954, a multi-pronged, constantly shape-shifting piece whose startling red color is offset by the neutrality of the roof’s wooden beams.
A couple of the galleries are home to smaller-scale mobiles and stabiles, among them “Apple Monster,” which repurposes a dying apple tree branch, and its sibling “Untitled,” both 1938, a painted, curved piece of wood on wire tripod legs, mounted by a piece of real bone vertebra. Together they appear on the verge of scuttling off of their designated plinths. Calder always worked by intuition, creating the careful equilibrium upon which these pieces rely by eye measure alone. In “Tines,” 1943, he delicately balances actual pitchfork tines on one end of a horizontally hung wire against a constellation of painted shells and glass on the other. As it gently turns, the mobile casts shadows across the gallery’s pristine white walls. Yet it’s easy to forget that this, like many of the mobiles, is also a sound sculpture, its delicacy intended to be enjoyed and replicated aurally as well as visually, and this loss is the one real pity about the exhibition.
The real draw, however, are the myriad household items, furniture and pieces of jewellery that Calder fashioned, often out of nothing more complicated than sheet metal and wire, and which filled his Roxbury home. Instead of discarding used or broken objects, Calder used his ingenuity and resourcefulness to give them a new lease of life. These include: an intricate silver wire milk skimmer (that looks like it could double up as a dream-catcher), a baby rattle, a toilet paper holder, a toaster, and multiple ashtrays made from emptied out tin cans, the type that originally would have contained olive oil or perhaps some fish, and which were used extensively during regular cocktail gatherings. For anyone seeking inspiration when it comes to recycling, this show is an excellent place to start. Another vitrine gives an insight into what the interior decor chez the Calders might have looked like: a couple of low wooden chairs that flank a coffee table and chess set (in a nod to Duchamp), a rug and paintings; all, apart from the chairs, a riot of primary colors. Viewed all together, it’s a testament to an ever-buzzing imaginative mind, one that dispelled with hierarchies, and for which both the monumental and the intimate were registers that welcomed artistic play.
Founder Louise Blouin