A Composition Book For Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder drew his jewellery designs into a generic student’s composition book that’s an enduring classic. On December 23 last year the film critic Roger Ebert tweeted: “Ever notice how Artistic and Intense young women in coffee houses are always writing in one of these.”
It’s easy to imagine how this type of book might have emerged from traditional bookbinding. All of the pages sewn into one thick signature, a piece of heavy cloth glued over the outside fold instead of building a spine, and the marbled paper that was often used as end pages glued over heavy boards as a decorative cover. It’s an enduring classic. Machine mass production further simplified the form, replacing the stitching with staples and a single, flimsier wraparound board for the two sturdy cover boards.
As a child Alexander Calder made jewellery for his sister’s toys. In Paris in the 1920s he met a Yugoslavian man who advised him that he could make a living from devising mechanical toys. He bent wire into the shapes of animals and clowns and lion tamers and performed a circus with them. “I always loved the circus,” he said, “I used to go in New York when I worked on the Police Gazette. I got a pass and went every day for two weeks, so I decided to make a circus for the fun of it.”
He began to make mobiles after being impressed by coloured rectangles on a wall in Mondrian’s studio.
“The most important thing is that the mobile be able to catch the air,” he said. “It has to be able to move. A mobile is like a dog-catcher. A dog-catcher of wind. Dog-catchers go after any old dog; my mobiles catch any kind of wind, bad or good. Myself, I’m like my mobiles; when I walk in the streets I latch onto things too.”
His jewellery was made as gifts for friends. It included portraits in twisted wire that were a progression from the line drawings he’d made for the Police Gazette, letters of the alphabet and animal and plant shapes. His materials were bits of wire and string and shards of simple crockery.
“After their marriage in 1931, Louisa became less concerned with social conventions and lived a simple bohemian life with Calder,” his grandson Alexander Rower wrote in a monograph of Calder’s jewellery. “He would often observe her at work making bread or hooking rugs and go out to the studio to devise a tool to simplify her task. He made hundreds of gifts for her: sculptures, drawings, household inventions, and untold numbers of jewellery that she wore in her daily life. Many of them were created for a specific garment: buttons for a certain coat, a buckle for her black wool cape, etc.”
Calder trained as an engineer and worked in a car factory before moving to Paris. When asked how this affected his work he said: “It’s made things simple for me that seem to confound other people, like the mechanics of the mobiles. I know this, because I’ve had contact with one or two engineers who understood my methods. I don’t think the engineering really has much to do with my work: it’s merely the means of attaining an aesthetic end.”
In addition to his mobiles, Calder made large-scale fixed pieces he called ‘stabiles’. There’s a Calder stabile on the forecourt of the Australia Centre on George Street. A couple of biennale’s ago at the Museum of Contemporary of Art there were a couple of Calder mobiles on display and I’d marvel at their elegant weightlessness and then walk up to the stabile and admire the industrial precision of the stabile’s rivets and bracing that fixed the arced pieces immovably in place. “If a plate seems flimsy, I put a rib on it, and if the relation between the two plates is not rigid, I put a gusset between them – that’s the triangular piece – and butt it to both surfaces,” Calder said. “How to construct them changes with each piece; you invent the bracing as you go, depending on the form of each object.”
It was then I started thinking about making an exercise book that would be an homage to Alexander Calder. It would use vernacular materials: shellacked Kraft board, packing tape, duct tape, shellacked Kraft paper as end pages.
It builds upon the durability of the early versions of the marbled composition book. The exercise book is ‘engineered’, with a ‘floating’ spine that would enable the book to sit open at every page.
Alexander Rower wrote about his grandfather finding the “grace of functionality” in his “unpretentious handmade jewellery,” and described his “appreciation of the usually discarded.” The “usually discarded” today would include the mass produced exercise books that are a form of fast food. The paper in these notebooks is serviceably good but their construction is shoddy and their covers flimsy and the graphic design repellently ugly.
Since a Climate Change exhibition at the Australian Museum in 2009, I’ve been thinking that any exercise books I make should redeem and repurpose these ‘junk food’ exercise books. I could buy all of the materials in my neighbourhood: exercise books from supermarkets in Potts Point, newsagents in Taylor Square and Kings Cross, and there may be occasional troves of exercise books donated to Reverse Garbage. All of the materials to put the books together can be purchased at the hardware store on William Street and the Oxford Art Supply store.
And as Calder’s jewellery stayed within his community of artists, friends and family, it makes sense for my Calder exercise book to be sold in my neighbourhood.