Views and Reviews

Modern Science and the Avant-Garde: Rethinking Alexander Calder

Monday, 23 January, 2012 by Jane Scarth

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:

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’ (Source:

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’

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