In Motion: Calder on Paper

In existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s 1947 essay, ‘Existentialist on mobilist’, Sartre describes Alexander Calder’s mobiles lyrically: like ‘aeolian harps’, his sculptures are ‘always beginning again, always new’. Sartre reads Calder’s mobiles as symbolic of a wider existentialist project: they are ‘symbols of nature – that great vague nature which wastes pollen […] that unknown nature which might be a blind chain of cause and effect […]’.

Central to the essay, however, is Sartre’s understanding of movement as pivotal to Calder’s project. Unlike sculpture before it, which takes imitation as its main point of departure, Calder’s mobiles are radically non-representative. Completely unfigurative, they anticipate a trend in contemporary scholarship towards ‘thing theory’ – where art exists unproductively and inexplicably. Where ‘Sculpture suggests motion, painting suggests light of space’, Calder’s mobiles ‘suggest nothing’. He ‘fashions real, living motions which he has captured. His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing but themselves: they are, that is all; they are absolutes’: they are majestic, autonomous, yet arbitrary. Given the importance of movement to Calder’s oeuvre, how, then, are we to conceive of his static drawings?

Calder’s works on paper teeter between abstraction and figuration, the real and the symbolic. Made alongside his sculptural projects, Calder uses gouache to draw on totemic imagery such as stars, pyramids, and mountains. Where some pieces, such as 6 Circles, 1973, are purely abstract – six multicoloured circles floating on an undifferentiated plane – others, such as Kwai, 1974, depict a surreal tableau. In this piece, a personified moon looks down over what could be a desert scene – yellow sand enshrouds an animal, a path, and monuments below.

Sartre’s text revels in the autonomy of Calder’s mobiles. While Calder’s drawings are static, they retain the same sense of playfulness as his moving pieces. His illustrations are childlike: his emphatic use of colour and line make simple, bold compositions. They are reminiscent of the circus, with an atmosphere of carnival about them. His 1972 Harbour depicts effervescent bubbles emerging from a red broth; his Composition (Pyramid and Sun on Target), 1973, shows geometric shapes playing off each other dynamically, rattling around empty picture space. These drawings feel like they’re moving, even when they’re not. Calder encodes dynamism into his drawings, so they exist with the same liberating arbitrariness that Sartre reads into his mobiles.

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