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Calder is one of the giants of modernist sculpture. How do contemporary artists engage with his work?

2016
16th February

IN WHICH WAYS DO YOU THINK YOUR WORK INTERSECTS WITH CALDER’S WORK AND LEGACY?

“CALDER HIMSELF COULD HAVE ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. ONCE HE SAID, “THE UNDERLYING SENSE OF FORM IN MY WORK HAS BEEN THE SYSTEM OF THE UNIVERSE, OR PART THEREOF.” – TOMÁS SARACENO

“IN QUESTIONING WHAT THE LIMITS/DEFINITION OF SCULPTURE COULD BE.” – DARREN BADER

“FREE MOVEMENT, EQUILIBRIUM, PLAYFULNESS, EFFICIENCY OF MEANS.” – ŽILVINAS KEMPINAS

In 2013, during the coming of the Art Prize to Grand Rapids, Michigan, Calder’s iconic sculpture La Grande Vitesse — a gigantic curved structure of red iron — was covered in sentimental white flowers by a local artist who wanted to pay homage to the seminal sculptor’s ties to France. The Calder foundation, probably reacting to what some saw as a cutesy hawaiian shirt-like disrespect to Calder’s legacy as a modern and cutting-edge artist, called the intervention an “abomination reflecting an utter lack of understanding and respect of Calder’s legacy and genius.”

With the show Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture currently installed at Tate Modern, Calder seems to come back in the center of conversations, and Pace Gallery’s The Calder Prize 2005-2015presents the authorised version of what Calder’s “legacy and genius” might look like in 2016.

Alexander Calder is one of these modern giants that has so permeated the vocabulary of art, that his work has now become one of the building blocks with which we understand sculpture. He was a constant innovator, but it is his perfection of the mobiles — suspended sculptures moving around with air currents, and his monumental public sculptures that have most marked the history of sculpture.

The Calder Foundation, founded in 1987, eleven years after the death of the artist, by his grandson, attributes a Calder Prize biannually. The Prize itself consists of a monetary reward of 50.000 USD, a residency at Atelier Calder, and the placement of a work in a public collection. But the exposure is also inherently part of the reward, and all of the winners so far have gone on to major exhibitions and recognition. The aim of the prize is, according to the Foundation, to reward artists who made exemplary and innovative early work that can be interpreted as a continuation of Calder’s legacy. By exhibiting the work of every winner so far next to Calder’s, Pace provides an opportunity to examine both what that legacy might be, and how each of the Prize’s five winners engage with or define such a legacy.

WHEN YOU WERE AWARDED THE CALDER PRIZE, WHAT WAS THE IMPACT ON YOUR CAREER, BOTH DUE TO THE EXPOSURE AND THE MONETARY PRIZE?

“I WAS VERY HONORED TO RECEIVE THE INAUGURAL CALDER PRIZE AND A RESIDENCY AT ATELIER CALDER IN FRANCE. THE AWARD CAME AT A CRITICAL TIME FOR ME EARLY IN MY CAREER. IT GAVE ME A CHANCE TO FIND THE TIME AND SPACE TO PURSUE SOME LARGER PROJECTS, THAT OTHERWISE WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE AT THE TIME.” – TARA DONOVAN

“IT WOULD NOT BE AN EXAGGERATION TO SAY THAT THE CALDER PRIZE AND ATELIER CALDER RESIDENCY PUSHED ME TO BECOME A FULL-TIME ARTIST, HELPED ME TO GAIN INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME BROUGHT ME CLOSER TO MY HOMELAND.” – ŽILVINAS KEMPINAS

However, the first case this show makes is actually for Calder itself. The pieces presented here do justice to both Calder’s range and mastery of forms. While one might find the portrait of the artist traced here perhaps too serious — ignoring Calder’s levity and humour one might find in his Circus, or his more straightforwardly figurative works in favor of more modernist tropes — it is hard to deny the strength of Calder’s work when in front of a curated selection of its highs. Trois Pics stands here as a more humanely sized iteration of Calder’s many monumental public works, and this bodily scale emphasises the formal qualities of the work. Three medium scale bronzes, presented as one, enter the show, shine a light on a Calder departing from assembling form from flat surfaces, and the inevitable mobiles are as exquisite as one might expect. The Tree, a work from the 60’s, stands in the middle of the room, acting as a hybrid between the sculptures and the mobiles, an inspired fusion of the light and the heavy, the abstract and the organic. While the press release emphasises Calder’s quality as an inventor and an innovator, seeing these works decades after their novelty has faded, reveals Calder’s incredible talent for composition. Each work manages to feel balanced and yet active, the forms graceful but strong. Calder desired to recreate in his works the structure of the universe, and all of his work seem indeed to work as discrete formal systems, with their own gravities and unspoken rules.

IN WHICH WAYS DO YOU THINK YOUR WORK EXTENDS ON CALDER’S WORK?

“CALDER WAS SUCH A PROLIFIC ARTIST WHO HAS INFLUENCED MANY SUBSEQUENT GENERATIONS OF ARTISTS, INCLUDING MYSELF. HIS LEGACY LIVES ON NOT ONLY IN THE WORKS HE LEFT BEHIND, BUT ALSO IN THE IDEAS AND MOTIVATIONS HE CONTINUES TO INSPIRE. HIS FOCUS ON THE POTENTIAL OF MATERIALS, AND HOW THEIR PHYSICAL PROPERTIES ALLOWED HIM TO WORK WITH VARYING SCALES AND EXPLOIT THE KINETIC POTENTIAL OF MODULAR FORMS, IS A TESTAMENT TO HIS PLAYFUL APPROACH TO WORKING, WHICH RELIES ON EXPERIMENTATION AND DIALOGUE.” – TARA DONOVAN

Calder’s legacy is a strong one to take on, and each of the laureates seems to project a different point of view on both how to understand and how to extend Calder’s work in the present.

Tara Donovan, who won the first prize, is here represented by two organic sculptures. While Slinkys® is made of flexible metal springs — the eponymous “Slinky” toys — and Cloud of twist ties, they function similarly, contrasting their banal mass-produced components with a surprisingly organic and graceful aspect once assembled. Donovan’s work often shine when presented in overwhelmingly large scale, and while both works are both pleasant and intriguing, their relatively small presence and lack of resonance with the architecture of the gallery only do them disservice. While the parallel between Calder’s and Donovan’s inventivity are evident, one might wish to have seen different works of her here.

Žilvinas Kempinas’ relationship with Calder is obvious here too, in the kinetic quality of his Flux, a band of tape made to hover over a pedestal by a suspended fan. It has all the levity and the simplicity of the mobiles, and the child-like amazement produced by things simply refusing to rest on the ground — and all of the DIY humour of Calder’s lighter works. Illuminator XXV, one of a series of illuminated bas-relief of moons, calls directly to Calder’s affinity with the universe as a formal inspiration, but seems to imitate its appearance more than its rules.

Tomás Saraceno also seems like an easy heir to Calder’s ease with material and negative space. Cumulus Filaments is one of his frail assemblage of rope and fishing line into floating geometric shapes. While it has the lightness of the mobiles, its conventional form contrast with Calder’s inventivity. Trace G64 B213 is a gracious composition of spider silk and ink that is elevated by its delicate materiality. As with Tara Donovan, while the link of Calder is made obvious, the art fair-like curation and choice of work is perhaps to the detriment of the artist.

Darren Bader, penultimate winner and elusive and playful sculptor, is here only present via IOHEfU, a sound file. While the work defines much of the texture of the show itself, it is not an experience onto which much might or should be written about.

COULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOUR WORK IS ABOUT?

“ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE SENSORY AND THE NOMINAL. ADD TO THE MIX SEVERAL OTHER TENDENCIES, BOTH FORMAL AND ‘INFORM’AL.” – DARREN BADER

With Rachel Harrison, an entirely new understanding of how to expand on Calder’s work seem to emerge. In both Silent Account — one of her signature formless shapes resting on wood steps — and Avatar — an expressionistically painted wood totem adorned of jeans and a photograph, she seems to channel Calder’s compositional genius. Both works seem guided by a logic of their own, with minute cultural details (the piles of bodybuilding catalog peeking under Silent Account give an all-different understanding of the bodily mass that crowns it) and overall formal quality resonating with one another. Harrison seems to indistinctly use form and content as language, and the balance of her references is perhaps the most novel understanding of what take from Calder one can find in the show, marrying modernist sculptural strategies with the freedom to use cultural signifiers, as one might use shape or colors.

This understanding of Calder can also be found in Haroon Mirza, who received the prize last year. In the main gallery, his Light Work iii is a pleasant but conventional postmodern riff on geometric abstraction. It is upstairs that the real work is set up. Surrounding a sprawling mess of cables and connectors, two screens, an LED shape, speakers and two ancient radios animate and answer each other, resulting in a small scale orchestra of bass and glitched-out music videos. It is an inherently immanent ritual of noise and rhythm, and brings to mind Calder’s vision when he wrote “the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.” Mirza’s installation seems to emerge directly from this source, a music of the spheres that seems to still be rooted in our daily reality. It captures Calder’s fusion of the playful and the majestic, and puts it to work in a contemporary context.

“THE BASIS OF EVERYTHING I DO IS THE UNIVERSE.” – ALEXANDER CALDER

Overall, the show manages to present a convincing case both for the genius of Calder and for his legacy. Although this might be because the format of the show is not as adapted to artists like Tara Donovan or Tomás Saraceno, it is Rachel Harrison and Haroon Mirza’s works that seem to point us towards the real legacy of Calder: a sense of form and composition, of systems and secret ententes between objects. It is telling that the artworks digressing the most from Calder’s modernist formal tropes are the one who embody this ideal the most. In exhibiting Calder’s future, the Foundation seems to also admit that it is through embellishing him with flowers, through breaking away from its appearance of modernist purity with music and objects, that one might best celebrate him.

The Calder Prize 2005-2015 is at Pace Gallery London, 6 Burlington Garden until March 5 2016. Go see it. It is good.

Words Alexandre Saden

Photography courtesy of Pace Gallery