Modern Science and the Avant-Garde: Rethinking Alexander Calder

Vanja Malloy

I’ve always secretly wished I was really good at science and could do physics. My dad tried particularly hard to get me interested having studied it himself at university, but the truth is I never had teacher at school that could get me engaged unless it was art or drama. Now having found my ‘calling’ (at least for now!) in art history, I always admire scholarship that finds new ways of fusing the two together.

Fig 1: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Orange Anvil, 1960

Fig 1: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Orange Anvil, 1960

Bringing astrophysics into the study of Alexander Calder’s Constellation series (figs. 1 & 2) proved the ways in which an understanding of science and its role within the contextual climate can open whole new realms of meaning. The prospect can often seem daunting for those less scientifically inclined. I won’t lie about the fact that when the speaker began discussing cosmic nuclear gasses, interstellar matter, and the 4th dimension of space time, my heart sunk a little with the feeling my scientific ignorance would cost me a full understanding of the debate. However it is not just that these ideas explain the artwork, but it was argued that the artworks themselves are creative explanatory models for what were new theories about the cosmos, an explanation that certainly helped me!

In terms of art historical context, I was particularly taken with the discussion of the Dimensionist Manifesto (1936), created by Charles Sirato and signed not only by Calder, but Arp, Picabia, Miró, Kandinsky, Delaunay, Duchamp and Nicholson to name but a few. Clearly Calder’s astrological endeavours speak to a wider contemporary artistic phenomenon, and focusing on his particularly astute intellectual response in relation to this elevate him from his usually marginalised status. Indeed Calder had trained for four years as an engineer, and so his technical understanding most likely surpassed some of his contemporaries. The manifesto states:

“It is, on the one hand, the modern spirit’s completely new conception of space and time (the development of which, in geometry, mathematics and physics – from Bólyai through Einstein – is on going in our days), and on the other, the technical givens of our age, that have called Dimensionism to life.”[1]

It was suggested that every element of the Constellations colour, line, and shape are representative of specific scientific language and diagrams. As you may have noticed from my first blog post, I like unusual formal connections. Therefore I was fascinated by the comparison of the ‘hourglass’ shapes in Constellation with Two Pins (fig. 2), to the diagram of a light cone (fig. 3). It seems that in coming together within the artwork, these complex theories help to explain each other.

As with any Research Forum event, the depth of analysis was such that I could not fathom to cover it here. But I would like to end by reflecting on a phrase I can’t get out of my head, about making the connection. Calder’s works literally connect stellar forms with spindly stems, making connections between the shapes, which can be seen to represent scientific theories, and at the same time reminding us that the connection between art and science is often a lot closer than we imagine. Unfortunately I think it is the cultural heritage of Enlightenment reason vs. Romantic emotion (i.e. Science vs. Art) that tell us they are not, a barrier still often hard to break down.

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943 (Photo: http://calder.org/work/period/1937-1945/40.html)

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943
(Photo: http://calder.org/work/period/1937-1945/40.html)

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’ (Source: http://einstein.stanford.edu/SPACETIME/spacetime2.html)

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’
(Source: http://einstein.stanford.edu/SPACETIME/spacetime2.html)

Derek Boshier: From Doris to Chemical Coyboys

A Response

The reason for the sheer enjoyment I find in artists’ talks is that they take you away from your books and remind you about the reality of artwork in the context of the person who made it. Derek Boshier has delved into a huge variety of both ideas and working practises during his career and the presentation he gave to the Research Forum was a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of his life and work. He unfortunately had to begin by apologising for having to squeeze what was usually an hour and a half talk into a mere 45 minutes, certainly not long enough for me who thoroughly enjoyed all of his stories ‘From Doris to Chemical Cowboys’.

Speaking to the audience mainly using anecdotes, he highlighted some of the key themes of a career begun at a crucial point of transition for British art. Coming out of the Royal College in the 1960s (alongside Peter Blake and David Hockney), he insisted that impetus for their Pop Art was that they just wanted to paint the things they knew around them, the things that interested them. As he put it, not wine bottles and fruit, but films, music and sex. This freedom expanded into his subsequent multidisciplinary practise, which took as many forms imaginable, each with a very unique style.

It was his more atypical work that interested me the most. Of his image-based work, one of the projects Boshier discussed that particularly appealed to me is his 16 Situations (1971). This was an intervention into a series of photographs with a pair of repeated sculptural forms, playing with locations and scales from the micro to the macro (figs. 1 & 2).[1] They appear as a departure from the immediacy of his brightly coloured Pop painting style, yet I think they still communicate the continually present playfulness of his work. This was reinforced for me by his lively delivery style, which excited a sense of immediacy on each topic, regardless of which era he was discussing.

His description of a 1968 collaborative happening with Joe Tilson The Smith/Novak Event (fig. 3) had a sort of timelessness, and certainly would not seem out of place if enacted again today.[2] This took the form of a gesture of friendship between the two most common names in the London and Prague phonebooks, put into place through a workshop involving as many members of the public with those names who would take part. His comment on this work being that in the autumn of that year Soviets moved into Prague and as far as he knows most correspondence was halted.

Each slide is an artwork with a strong personal memory attached, meaning that each projected a strong personal perspective on social and cultural conditions, from what was showing at the cinema, to the state of feminism at the time. I would argue this was one of the most compelling artists’ talks I have attended and urge anyone to see him speak if you find an opportunity.

I would also like to encourage you to attend the series of artists’ talks and workshops organised by the East Wing X committee to compliment the Material Mattersexhibition, ‘Material Insights’. We are inviting artists to engage and discuss with us the materials in which they work. The first event is a talk delivered by Tom Hunter, whose Anchor and Hope is on display in Seminar Room 3. This will take place in SR3 on Monday 6th February at 6pm.

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968

PHOTOGRAPHY AND TEMPORALITY AT THE FIRST BIENNALE OF SPATIAL FORMS IN THE POLISH PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC (ELBLAG, 1965) SYLWIA SERAFINOWICZ

A Response

Research Forum Modern and Contemporary Seminar

One of the aims of this new initiative by the Research Forum is to allow students to respond to research events in diverse ways, placing new, perhaps abstract lenses on the information presented. I have chosen to respond to this discussion with a note on Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. As a true admirer of his work I couldn’t help but see two distinct, if somewhat trivial, aesthetic similarities with a photograph by Elżbieta Tejchman in the presentation (Fig. 1), and two of his images. The first related to the use of a solitary figure within a bleak, monochrome landscape, seen here in Nostalgia (Fig. 2), as a strong visual motif in Tarkovsky’s films. The second is the form of the sculpture in Fig. 1, Antoni Starczewski’s ‘spatial form‘ created for the Biennale, and the Polish poster for Solaris (1972), designed by Andrzej Bertrandt (Fig. 3).

These two aspects pick up on the tension of artistic forces in the notion of ‘Photography and Temporality’, there is first the sculpture for the Biennale itself, and then the photographer documenting the event for future observation. Yet when these photographs adopt distinct aesthetic and compositional choices, the artwork it has originally depicted takes on a new meaning within the photographic context. This was one of the themes that Sylwia Serafinowicz discussed in her seminar, analysing the photographs themselves more than the artworks they depict.

I found it quite bizarre that these two separate elements (the sculpture and Solaris, and the photograph and Nostalgia) came together in such a way as to highlight the political dimension, another key theme in Sylwia’s talk. This is because both Tarkovsky’s films and The First Biennale of Spatial Forms work against the current pressures of artists to conform to the socialist realist style of the soviet state, which was extremely difficult to oppose. Particularly for Tarkovsky in Russia, who found it increasingly difficult to make films in his home country, his last two (Nostalgia and The Sacrifice) having to be filmed elsewhere.

Sylwia suggested that in Tejchman’s photographs, the domination of the landscape and deserted streets speak of a void caused by the destruction of the old town of Elblag, under Nazi and then Soviet rule. Considering this now in terms of my Tarkovsky-esque reading, perhaps if we take the photograph out of the context of the Biennale, this is a structure that would not be so out of place as a strange piece of abandoned industrial machinery somewhere in ‘The Zone’, the surreal wasteland setting of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

I decided to make this first blog post a ‘response’ on a very basic level, and as such these comments barely scratch the surface of the depth of Sylwia’s discussion into the complex elements of both the Biennale and the accompanying photographs. Although my observations rely solely on what was essentially a gut reaction to an aesthetic and compositional mood shared by these images, this can be one way to play around with ideas, which can sometimes extend broader angles for research.

Illustrations
Fig. 1: Elżbieta Tejchman, Untitled (Antoni Starczewski's 'spatial form'), Gelatin silver print, 1965

Fig. 1: Elżbieta Tejchman, Untitled (Antoni Starczewski’s ‘spatial form’), Gelatin silver print, 1965

Fig. 2: Andrei Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

Fig. 2: Andrei Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

Fig. 3: Andrzej Bertrandt, Polish promotional poster for Solaris, 1972

Fig. 3: Andrzej Bertrandt, Polish promotional poster for Solaris, 1972