What makes up an Alexander Calder sculpture? "Bustling centipedes, little crimson moons, water heavy as tears, and children with cherries all play between his fingers," marveled the poet André Massard in response to the American sculptor’s deceitfully simple steel sculptures while visiting Calder’s studio in rural Connecticut. It’s also a question that Hauser & Wirth explores in Alexander Calder: From the Stony River to the Sky, a new retrospective of Calder’s life and work at the gallery’s countryside outpost in Somerset, England.
Nearly 100 works spanning painting, sculpture, jewelry, and homewares spread out across the galleries and gardens of Hauser & Wirth’s 1,000-acre rural English estate. Taken with the many similarities between the gallery’s upgraded farmhouse building (converted by French atelier Laplace) and Calder’s own countryside studio, the Calder Foundation approached Hauser & Wirth last year with the idea of a collaborative exhibition.
Dinner bell (1942), designed by Alexander Calder. Photo: Courtesy of the Calder Foundation
There is more than meets the eye to each Calder piece, and that enigmatic persona extends to the artist’s public and private life. In the few revealing words that Calder uttered about himself in his latest biography, Calder: the Conquest of Time (Knopf, 2017), he vividly details the precise moment he became an artist. Laying on the dock of a boat at sea, with the moon rising on one side and the sun setting on the other, he recalls his body balanced in perfect aquatic equilibrium. Calder promptly surrendered his mechanical engineering degree in New York to this creative calling. It’s a background detail that, along with the ocean and the cosmos, art historians tend to overprescribe to the meaning of his mobiles.
After a brief stint in Paris, where Calder was inducted into Europe’s avant-garde art scene, which included Fernand Lèger, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso, he and his wife eloped to Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1933 to escape the rumblings of fascism. Here, they transformed a dilapidated farmhouse into picturesque residence that also included three studios for Calder’s budding practice.
Surrounded by nature, Calder’s signature mobiles bloomed into their full potential: monolithic yet supple, joyous characters yielding only to the wills of the wind. Yet as Calder’s anthropomorphic sculptures challenged the sky, his handiwork simultaneously became domesticated. An illuminating and amusing display of one-off eclectic homewares—which he would never acknowledge as art—await the visitor.
Classy toilet paper holders sit alongside innovative milk steamers; dinner bells cozy up with Art Deco–inspired andirons; UFO-shaped toasters seem poised to take off while a half-dozen ashtrays frontline the first room of the exhibition. (A born socialite, Calder was constantly hosting parties for his international comrades, not least his heavy-smoking Parisians.) These never-before-seen gadgets paired with breathtaking jewelry and rare paintings are presented alongside famed mobile projects like Black Beast (1940) and La Grande Vitesse (1969). Ultimately, Alexander Calder: From the Stony River to the Sky delivers a new personal take on this mysterious maverick artist, as clear and unhurried as a countryside creek. The exhibition begins on May 26 and runs through September 9.