Dear Alexander Calder,
This is the first fan letter I have written posthumously, and I’m worried that it might become awkward. But I’m going to push on, mostly because I find writing such a powerful way of learning. I guess that is why they make you write essays at school.
In many ways I’m here because Tom Sachs sent me. I was watching a lecture by Tom when he casually dropped “… all the evidence or what Alexander Calder would term ‘the scars of labor’”. I paused the video and looked up your work. The first photograph I found of your sculptures was instantly familiar. I had spent a couple of minutes mumbling stuff like “I have seen this… Where I have seen your work?” when it smacked me in the face. I ran to the bookcase and dug out the textbook ‘Introduction to Algorithms’.
On the cover, staring out at me was something you created in 1959, Big Red. It was one of those shattering moments that brought me right to the existential ledge. I had spent hours of my undergraduate years studying from Introduction to Algorithms. Why had it taken me over fifteen years to finally consider the cover? It was here I realised the world was filled with dimensions that I had been completely oblivious too. I was hooked. Why was your work on the front of my textbook and who were you?
I found one of the answers from Thomas Cormen, an author of Introduction to Algorithms.
We chose it because it’s a tree drawn the way that computer scientists draw trees. We were hoping to find a Calder mobile with both red plates and black plates, but we couldn’t find one.
The harder question of who you were took much longer. But the more I dug, the more I liked what I found and the more I noticed an unseen thread through my life. Building mobiles in primary school, visiting sculptures in Canberra and Sydney. I’m pretty sure at one point I even had a toy car that sported your livery. As someone who was born five years after your death, it was easy to accept the praise around your work. I mean to be able to look back on my life and easily recall instances of your cultural influence? I think that carries a fair weight, especially considering I live on the other side of the planet.
The fact that you were first a mechanical engineer was cool. But I’m biased on that front, the thing I enjoyed learning most was your attitude. Just doing what you loved. You created a huge volume of work, I saw someone estimate it at something like one a day for twenty years? And your attitude towards the ‘establishment’ seemed to reinforce that. Ignoring what you called ‘hubbub’ and even refusing to call your work art? Sticking with just ‘objects’ and letting others label your efforts? I think that is what really set you apart.
Each time I write one of these letters, I’m left with at least one unanswered question. I wonder who the unnamed engineer was that inspired you into mechanical engineering? Was it something they built? Was it who they were? Why you got into engineering and the tension between your early career and lifelong profession would be a fascinating story. Especially as someone who struggled with early career tensions of their own and is desperately trying to find their calling.
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