Beaming with an ebullient spirit and transformative dreamlike fantasy, Calder’s Untitled from circa 1942 represents the artist’s breathtaking ingenuity and spectacular formal dexterity. A paragon of Calder’s earliest standing mobiles that incorporated found pieces of colored glass, Untitled captures the artist at the height of his inventive curiosity, adventuring toward new conceptions of spatial understanding, material innovation, and romantic beauty. As the poised onyx-hued spine of the sculpture gracefully twists upon two delicately perched hind-legs, the luminous kaleidoscope of dazzling colors that cascade from the tip of Untitled radiate with a translucence afforded by Calder’s brilliant use of scavenged chunks of colored glass, enclosing jewel-like fragments of bottles within elegantly wrapped lengths of wire. The provenance of this sculpture is exceptional and endows the work with an unparalleled level of historical import: Untitled was gifted by the artist directly to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr notably gave Calder a major solo retrospective exhibition at MoMA in 1943—the year likely following the execution of Untitled—and proceeded to acquire numerous pivotal works by the artist for the collection, including commissioning Calder in 1939 to create the large Lobster Trap and Fish Tail to inaugurate the main staircase of the new MoMA building. Untitled remained in Barr’s home from its time of gifting in 1966 to the present day, exhibited only once at the Princeton University Art Museum in 1997.
It is clear from well-archived correspondence between the two figures that this striking gift was one that was long considered, investing the present work with even greater narrative resonance. As early as before 1940, Calder repeatedly expressed to Barr his wish to present one of his works to his friend; in the final post-script to one long letter dated March 31, 1938, Calder wrote: “I have decided that you must have one of my objects, even if I have to lend, give or force it, to, or on, you.” It was not until 1966, however, that Barr accepted a gift from the artist, likely coinciding with a subsequent letter Calder wrote to Barr that year: “ ‘I have long felt that whatever my success has been, [it was] greatly as a result of the show I had at MOMA in 1943, and now, as I seem to have quite a number of I think important objects ‘left over’ I would like to make a gift of several of them to the Museum—if you would be interested’… The response to Calder’s letter of 1966 was immediate. Mr. Barr and Dorothy Miller went to Roxbury, Connecticut to see Calder’s two studios and the meadow full of large sculptures. Although uncertain of what Calder would concede from their list of thirteen selections, large and small, they were told: ‘Oh, you can have them all.’” (Harriet Schoenholz Bee, Ed., Art in Our Time: A Chronicle of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004, p. 136) This major gift to the museum in the same year of 1966 included what are widely considered some of Calder’s greatest masterpieces in the collection: Josephine Baker (III) (c. 1927), Snow Flurry, I (1948), Morning Star (1943), Gibraltar (1936), and Spider (1939). It was alongside this endowment of treasures to the world’s greatest museum of twentieth-century art that Calder gave Barr his own treasure: the scintillating glass and wire mobile Untitled, of 1942. This gift, moreover, held particular value, as it was executed just before the seminal MoMA retrospective that catalyzed Calder’s career and inspired the overall bequest to the museum.
Untitled embodies Calder’s distinctly Dadaist sensibility of utilizing an assemblage of diverse and unlikely materials to create an uncanny poetry. 1942 was a critical year for Surrealism in New York, with two legendary Surrealist events held in the fall: the exhibition “First Papers of Surrealism,” held at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion on Madison Avenue, and the opening of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery at 30 West 57th Street. Calder was notably included in both, evidencing the prominent position that concepts of Surrealism held in his universe at that moment. André Breton associated Calder with Surrealism in the winter of 1942, writing “Excluding every anecdotal element, Calder reduces the object to a few simple lines carving out elementary colors. This object, employing only the properties of movement—not represented movement but real movement—is miraculously brought to life in the most concrete shapes and restores to us the evolution of the celestial bodies, the rustling of foliage, the memory of caresses.” (André Breton quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, L&M Arts, Tanguy, Calder: Between Surrealism and Abstraction, 2010, p. 152) 1942 was also the same year that Calder began his famed series of Constellations, many of which are sketched on the same inventory scroll as the present sculpture. In the days before record-keeping photography, Calder drew miniature thumbnail sketches that would serve as visual identifiers of his works. Just as Calder turned to hand-carved wood as medium for his Constellations, a choice driven by the scarcity of metal needed for the war effort, his use of found and recycled bits of glass in Untitled reflect the artist’s war-time mentality.
Glass is among Calder’s rarest forms of material, notably used in his earliest sculptures such as his much esteemed group of Fish. As the artist recalled to Katharine Kuh in an interview in 1960, he smashed troves of collected colored glass against the stone wall of his barn, but used it only in a limited group of early works. Daniel Marchesseau described the formative influence of these earliest glass mobiles, particularly citing the present work: “They are translucent, gleaming or opaque, and Calder arranged them as would a mosaicist, in a knowingly contrived disorder… the restless, poetic inspiration with which these assemblages are imbued has its root in certain of the mobiles that had been designed beginning in 1936 for Pierre Matisse, Alfred Barr, Mary Reynolds, and Peggy Guggenheim.” (Daniel Marchesseau in Exh. Cat., Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs (and travelling), The Intimate World of Alexander Calder, 1989, p. 237) The architectural design of Untitled fully inhabits Calder’s unparalleled creative genius in its sumptuous choreography of exquisite light, movement, and flawlessly balanced form.
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