Sculpture just sat around waiting to be admired until Alexander Calder (1898-1976) came up with the idea of the mobile– a set of forms suspended in mid-air that move gently as viewers walk past. On the eve of the first-ever Australian exhibition of this revolutionary artist’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria, I visited his grandson, Sandy Rower, in the extraordinary New York penthouse that serves as the headquarters of the Calder Foundation.
Stylish, self-confident and loquacious, the 55-year-old Rower has set the gold standard for looking after the legacy of a famous forebear. He set up the Foundation in 1987 with the immediate aim of creating an archive of his grandfather’s works. There are now more than 22,000 pieces documented in serried rows of filing cabinets and neatly-labelled boxes. The top floor of this 1905 building in Chelsea is the nerve centre, where staff sit tapping at computer terminals. To get to the boss’s office one must ascend a flight of stairs and cross the rooftop, avoiding drifts of melting snow.
Inside one discovers a vast, white-washed room of roughly a 1,000 square metres, lit by rows of skylights. There are paintings by Calder’s friends such as Joan Míro, Fernand Léger and Wilfredo Lam, and a trove of artefacts – oriental vases, bronze Buddhas, African masks, even a small painting by Papunya artist, Michael Nelson Jagamarra. The furniture is strictly designer, from a chair by the eccentric Italian architect and photographer, Carlo Mollino, to a monumental coffee table carved from the trunk of a fallen redwood by American artist, J.B.Blunk.
All around there are works by Calder. Mobiles dangle from the ceiling, stabiles are artfully placed throughout both floors. There are Calder paintings on the walls and small sculptures on table tops. It’s a collection worth hundreds of millions. Rower points out one piece – a mobile in the shape of a fish, covered in fragments of broken glass. “There are 12 of these fish and they’ve become wildly valuable,” he explains. “Calder made them over a couple of decades, not just in one year. There are only two in private hands, the rest are in museums.”
Works are being continually shipped off to exhibitions or shuttled back and forth from storage. Rower says that the floor has just been restocked to replace pieces that have left for Melbourne.
“We do about 15 projects a year, which are seen by about 2.8 million people. We’re running a virtual museum with huge, huge attendance, but luckily we don’t have to sell any tickets.Our partners sell the tickets and we get the pleasure of sharing my grandfather’s genius.”
While Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor is showing at the NGV, the Musée Picasso in Paris is hosting the show, Calder-Picasso(until 25 August) , which has been co-curated by Rower and Picasso’s grandson, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. There are other shows this year in Santander and San Francisco.
Part of the wider work of the Foundation is combatting what Rower calls “misconceptions”. Taking the mass and inertia out of sculpture meant that Calder’s work has often been described as “playful” or “child-like”. For Rower such terms are utterly misleading and should be banished from the critical vocabulary.
“If you knew my grandfather you’d never think: ‘Hey, this guy is playful.’ He was very serious, extremely intellectual, incredibly well-read. His parents were cultured people who would take him to opera and dance performances.”
Rower does allows there may be two ways of interpreting the word “playful”. He rejects any suggestion that Calder’s work was “not rigorous”, but agrees it might also mean “innovative”.
He remembers childhood visits to Calder’s Connecticut studio: “My Grandpa never listened to music. He didn’t have a radio. Never in his whole life did he have a studio assistant. He made 6,000 sculptures wthout an assistant! The focus was so intense it was like watching somebody in a trance, as he moved objects around, finding this dynamic energy.”
Calder looks rather stern in all the old photographs, but in his Autobiography with Pictures (1976) he writes with constant, self-deprecating humour. Perhaps he was one of those rare individuals who took his work seriously but himself lightly. It’s an attractive combination.
Rower tells me one has to read that book at least eight times to understand what Calder was really saying. Having only read it once I feel sadly deficient. Was Calder that complicated? Yes and no. On the one hand he’s the most straightforward of artists – his abstract works are truly abstract: they present the viewer with an experience, they do not represent another kind of experience. The titles were usually dreamt up after the works had been produced.
The problem is that we are hard-wired to look for figurative references. We tend to see every artwork as a picture of something else. For Rower the real key to Calder’s work is an energy that has to be experienced at first hand – an energy that translates easily into pleasure. Even if the mobiles have become part of our popular culture there’s still no substitute for interacting with the actual works. You may find it to be tremendous fun but please don’t use that word with Sandy Rower.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 April, 2019