Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture is a hard act to follow

I couldn’t help but have a giggle at The Guardian’s Adrian Searle admitting that ahead of reviewing Performing Sculpture, which opened today at Tate Modern, he had long before relegated Alexander Calder’s work to ‘child’s play’, characterised by ‘New Yorker cartoons and twangly mobiles dangling over the trust-fund infant’s cot’. ‘The irony’, I thought. It was actually these qualities that I would be using in order to entice the kids to experience the sheer wonderment of this incredible exhibition – much of which has never been seen before on British soil.

One of the truly ground-breaking artists of the 20th century, Calder was born into a family of artists (his mother was a portrait artist and his father was a well known sculptor). With them keen for him to get a ‘proper’ job, he initially trained as an engineer, before enrolling at the Art Students League in New York. Following his dream, Calder eventually moved to Paris where he settled down and made a host of artistic friends, before developing the unique wire sculptures, which were soon to become his signature work.

I was hooked from the minute I entered the gallery. I almost completely overlooked the intricacies of his early work, having been immediately drawn to the wire sculpture portraits of art heroes such as Fernand Léger and Joan Miró, staring down at me from a great height. As with traditional sculpture, you can’t help but move backwards and forwards in front of them, peeking through the gaps in their caricature faces, desperate to see a nuance or change in the shadow reflected on the wall behind.

This early body of work also introduces Calder’s fascination with the circus and performance art, having been commissioned to illustrate the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus whilst jobbing on the National Police Gazette. With the mind of an engineer he was fascinated by the mechanics of the circus, the placement of wires and how (to the viewer on the ground), it was achieving something impossible, suspended out of reality and defying all logic.

Calder went on to set about creating an entire circus, complete with a full complement of characters that are bound to excite younger viewers. These early works are playful and figurative – such as Circus Scene (1929) and Acrobats (1927), but even the later mechanical pieces which are boxed in glass, require little more than a child’s eye and an active imagination to bring them to life, making many of the accompanying video demonstrations seem slow and clunky by comparison.

Calder’s work really came to life when he met abstract artist Piet Mondrian in 1930, and he began to imagine what could be achieved by bringing Mondrian’s famous geometric landscapes into the 3D space, setting them free to move about. This combination of strange shapes and glorious colour gave rise to the invention of the Mobile in the mid 1930’s, and a host of other ‘framed’ mobile sculptures, that now teeter way up high, safely away from curious little fingers, looking very much like illustrations of molecular science or abstract micro-worlds.

The splash of colour continues in a room dedicated to Calder’s ‘panel’ works, never been shown together before and typical of some of the artist’s more experimental work with painting and sculpture. This is a great room to allow kids some interpretation; I spotted a butterfly in Blue Panel (1936) and a gliding bird in Form Against Yellow (1936).

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Black Widow (1948), recently restored and standing in stark isolation before you exit through the gift shop. For me, however, the crowning glory is in the penultimate room, which from the moment you enter casts you out into an incredible universe of mobiles, a sea of drifting forms all moving on the natural air currents in the space.

Suddenly, instead of the usual rushed-parent desire to push on to what’s next, you’ll all be looking up in a zombie-like fashion, enjoying a rare, almost meditative, opportunity to be ‘in the moment’ at an art gallery, safe in the knowledge that anything of any value is safely strung up out of harms way. “Look a Snow Flurry!” and “How many circles are in Triple Gong?”, “If you stand for 5 minutes more it might come around again”. Games like these could run and run.

There’s so much to see here, it’s hard not to divert in different directions, almost completely missing exhibits like Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, hidden in the nooks and crannies. The abundance of space between each exhibit makes you want to dash from piece to piece, but what I especially loved about Calder’s work was how he liberates the viewer by celebrating the unpredictability of what you’ll experience on your own personal visit. There’s no right or wrong view and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a piece in the same position twice, with sculptures free to thrive on the excess energy that you might bring to a room, or simply be still in the wake of your exit.

If that isn’t akin to how the average family experience an exhibition, then i don’t know what is.

Alexander Calder Performing Sculpture is on at Tate Modern until 3rd April 2016.
Sunday to Thursday 10am-6pm (last admission 5.15pm), Saturday & Sunday 10am-10pm (last admission 9.15pm)
Admission: Adults £18, Under 12’s free, Concessions and Family Tickets available

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