Before Calder made his groundbreaking mobiles, he produced wire sculptures that tested the ways artworks could interact with their environs. In 1929 he compared his creation of figurative wire works, which he had begun exhibiting the year before, to “three-dimensional line drawing.” He explained, “They are still simple, more simple than before; and therein lie the great possibilities which I have only recently come to feel for the wire medium.”
In Aquarium, Calder made an animated underwater world out of modest coils that fold the open air into the crisp illusion of a fishbowl, with the added element of mechanical movement: with the gentle lift of a manual lever, a fish bends and wiggles beneath looping vegetal forms. When Aquarium was first exhibited in 1929 with other wood and metal sculptures at Fifty-Sixth Street Galleries, New York, a reviewer for the New Yorker noted that there was “a good deal more content than is at once apparent in the thin line of wire that he mainly uses for a medium. The manifest irony and the obvious fun that first strike the eye when viewing anything that Calder has created may lead you away from a serious consideration of what he accomplishes.” Building on early experiments such as Aquarium that incorporate empty space into sculptural forms, Calder’s mobiles would go on to interact with subtle currents in the surrounding atmosphere.
Calder’s grandson dives into Aquarium
SFX: A delightful little audio animation of the aquarium. Playful music & effects that punctuate these opening statements.
A hungry goldfish. A friendly snail. At the top, you can even see how much water this fishbowl holds.
All made with the bend and the twist of a wire.
SFX: Water sloshing
No one did this before Calder.
That’s Alexander Calder’s grandson, Sandy Rower. He’s a leading expert on Calder’s work.
The Aquarium is a fascinating object because the fish itself has a mechanized component. There’s a little wand at the bottom, where you can wiggle it back and forth and make the fish have the apparency of life.
SFX: Little tinkle that animates the fish
Calder made his mother a similar sculpture for Christmas about two weeks after he finished this one. She wrote this in a letter:
… it is remarkable! The eyes and mouth are faultlessly placed. This is hard to describe, but the fishes bend as though swimming!
It seems so playful — using wire to draw — it’s hard to believe all the controversy it caused in the 1930’s.
I mean, there were literal fistfights about the fact that using a piece of wire to make a sculpture cannot be sculpture.
Today it’s easy to see in the 21st century that they’re sculptures. It’s an accepted medium. But when he invented the medium, it was thoroughly upsetting to turn sculpture on its ear from the 19th century, was very disturbing to people.
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