Interview with Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator, Alexander Calder, Tate Modern

Furthering Tate Modern’s reassessments of key figures in modernism, Performing Sculpture reveals how motion, performance and theatricality underpinned American sculptor Alexander Calder’s practice. This landmark exhibition brings together over 100 works from museums around the world, as well as displaying a series of the artist’s collaborative projects in the fields of film, theatre, music and dance. A radical figure of the 20th century, Calder was a pioneer of kinetic sculpture; his dynamic avant-garde pieces brought movement to static objects and transformed the medium of sculpture. We speak to Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, about this unique showcase that traces the evolution of Calder’s distinct vocabulary – from his initial years captivating the artistic bohemia of inter-war Paris, to his later life spent between the towns of Roxbury in Connecticut and Saché in France.

A: Alexander Calder has been widely exhibited across the world, and has recently been the subject of various major gallery shows. How has Tate approached this new presentation of the iconic, avant-garde artist’s practice?
VO: Performing Sculpture at Tate Modern is set apart from previous exhibitions of Calder’s work in that it’s the UK’s largest ever presentation of the artist. The show provides a rare and exciting opportunity to see a large number of important works together for the first time – many of the works have not been exhibited in this country before, while others have not been shown for decades. It addresses a fresh perspective on the artist’s practice, focusing on the notion of performance as a driving force in his work – an element that has been little explored up until now. The exhibition reveals how Calder turned sculpture from a static object into a continually changing work to be experienced in real time.

A: A pioneer of kinetic sculpture, what makes Calder’s work timeless and relevant to contemporary styles and ideas today?
VO: Calder’s pioneering role was to have recognised that sculpture could move of its own accord and that the spectator no longer has to circumvent a static object. It was of course primarily his mobiles that made this insight actual and revolutionised the field, opening up the art work to the experience of time and the concept of the fourth dimension, as well to chance, contingency and performance. Calder developed the foundations for a new artistic language, a sculptural idiom that was not defined by an attention to static elements but forms in motion. His intense explorations and his radical ideas currently resonate stronger than ever. At an art historical moment when the experience of time and performance define the contemporary domain, it is crucial to remind ourselves of previous contexts and key figures that defined the field.

A: Which key pieces will be on display at Tate, and why have these been selected?
VO: The show presents quite a unique selection of Calder’s early wire portraits, panels and open frames. An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to Calder’s panels – a body of work he developed in 1936 and 1937. These works were selected as they represent a fertile period of innovation for Calder, which saw his kinetic art evolve into hybrids of painting and mobiles. It’s particularly significant as it marks the first time that these works have been exhibited together, with two of the works included in this display – Blue Panel 1936 and Untitled 1937 – not having been shown for over 80 years. Other key works in the show include a selection of Calder’s most significant motorised mobiles, such as Black Frame 1934 and A Universe 1934, that reveal the ways in which Calder made use of his training as an engineer and his fascination with the dynamism of the cosmos. Later works such as Snow Flurry I 1948, Red Gongs 1950 and Streetcar 1951 illustrate how Calder incorporated elements of choreography and sound to fundamentally change the principles of traditional sculpture. A real highlight though is the monumental Black Widow c. 1948: one of Calder’s largest mobiles which is being shown outside of its home in Brazil for the first time in its history.

A: As one of the show’s curators, will any new dialogues or relationships be created or proposed between individual works?
VO: We hope the exhibition will bring to the fore the radical nature of Calder’s thinking by exploring the notion of performance as a major element in his renovation of sculptural language. Calder conceived his sculptures as performers animated by air currents, mechanics or touch, so that through balance, motion and colour he could activate a ‘ballet without dancers’. The dialogue between works in the exhibition will amplify his ideas about composition through motion, which brought him repeatedly to ideas of theatricality and choreography. His conceptual devices based on notions of performance, movement and balance in relation to sculpture, offer a unique angle to rethink his practice.

A: Are there any special events lined up to complement the exhibition?
VO: A series of public performances of Calder’s sculpture Chef d’Orchestre 1966 took place during the opening week of the exhibition. The artist created Chef d’Orchestre for composer Earle Brown’s Calder Piece 1963-66, a unique piece of music compiled by Brown specifically for this collaboration. The standing mobile functions both as a “conductor” that determines the sequence and speed of the music, as well as one of the instruments, whereupon the elements are struck or “played” by four percussionists positioned equidistantly around it. This performance first premiered on 27 February 1967 at the Théâtre de l’Atelier Paris and has not been played for over 30 years, making this a particularly special moment. The performances in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall marked its UK premiere and a film of the piece is available to view on the Tate website. Still to come in January, Catalan actor, director and puppeteer, David Espinosa, will showcase his production of Mi Gran Obra (My Great Work) at Tate Modern as part of the London International Mime Festival 2016. Espinosa will stage a colossal spectacle in miniature, exploring the relationship between performers, objects and viewers, and questioning our own ideas of art and culture – it’s set to be a playful and highly imaginative production. For anyone keen to find out more about Calder, there will also be several curator tours of the exhibition throughout its run, taking place on 8 February and 14 March.

A: In your opinion, how does Calder relate to Tate Modern’s overall aims and output?
VO: Tate Modern is committed to presenting a ground-breaking programme of exhibitions, embracing new ideas and concepts that expand our understanding of art. Performance and live art in particular are becoming integral to the institution’s vision for the future. Understanding the importance and radical thinking of Calder, we wanted to explore a historical context in which the cross-fertilisation of artistic disciplines was as intense as it appears to be today. The rich links between art and performance seem crucial to a reassessment of Calder’s work and its enduring legacy, and embodies Tate Modern’s ambition to make connections between art of the past and that of the present.

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, until 3 April, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG.

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1. Alexander Calder (1898 -1976), Vertical Foliage, 1941. Sheet metal, wire, and paint 1359 x 1676 mm. Calder Foundation, New York © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London.