Untitled from 1938 embodies a wonderful sensation of twisting and turning, one wholly defiant of the work’s stationary nature. The legs sway inward and jut outward at the same time, while the upper appendages point in opposite directions; as one reaches toward the sky, the other bends downward towards the ground. The figure almost appears to dance or cavort, and Untitled so encapsulates a feeling of momentum that Calder’s beloved swinging “mobiles” are called to mind. Movement played a momentous role from the artist’s earliest days. As a young man in 1926, Calder moved to Paris where he was favorably received by the avant-garde for his good-humored Cirque Calder, an early performance piece of hand-made miniature wire characters, such as belly dancers, horseback riders and an array of animals. It was not until after his famous visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in October 1930, however, that Calder became profoundly inspired by abstraction and decisively dedicated himself to creating the first nonrepresentational mobiles.
The kinetic mobiles, free to move with the air’s currents, are celebrated for their drawing-like quality: the wire links resemble sketched lines, just as the abstract metal parts suggest organic shapes in a drawing. The disparity between these swaying mobiles and Calder’s standing sculptures prompted Jean Arp to famously (and somewhat cheekily) dub the latter, “stabiles,” a term that has come to encompass all of Calder’s still work, including the present sculpture. Though the distinction between these two bodies of work is well accepted, gallerist Marc Glimcher explains, “While some might consider the mobiles to be the ultimate expression of Calder’s use of ‘drawing in space,’ it is, in fact with the stabiles that Calder takes that final step.” Glimcher further notes that just as the artist’s wire sculptures and mobiles “borrow the fundamental drawing element of line and introduce it into the ‘real world,’ the [stabile] relies on the equally familiar element of drawing, the plane.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Pace Wildenstein, Calder: From Model to Monument, 2006, p. 5)
Notably, Calder’s first experiments with the sculptural possibilities of planar two-dimensional sheet metal were undertaken immediately before Untitled was executed. In 1936, Calder developed a method of “sketching” in metal that began with a maquette, and from this, the artist enlarged the work through a system of graphing. Calder first drew an outline of the sculpture on brown paper; over that, he traced square graphs which were then transferred onto larger paper, the template for the large-scale work. Throughout the procedure, Calder enjoyed the freedom to change and improve the design’s angles, edges and bends. As scale became a consideration, Calder began his fruitful collaboration with ironworks technicians. Calder Foundation Director Alexander S.C. Rower, who is also the artist’s grandson, elaborates, “By 1938 Calder employed technicians to construct his works under his direction. Although some have said that having his work executed by other hands was conceptual and distanced the artist's hand from the act of creation, this was not true of Calder. His process was based on the classical enlargement technique utilized by his sculptor father and grandfather.” (Exh. Cat., Mountainville, New York, Storm King Art Center, Calder: Storm King Art Center, 2001-2003, p. 13) Calder’s elders executed monumental sculpture in plaster and stone with the aid of mockups, technicians and methods that enabled the models’ measurements to be amplified on finished works. For his part, Devil Fish of 1937 is the first implementation of the maquette method in Calder’s oeuvre, and its date, style and process deeply relates to Untitled.
Calder is pictured in his New York studio beside an intact yet unpainted Devil Fish in a remarkable 1936 photograph by Herbert Matter. The photographer captured Calder’s process, as Calder’s tool marks are visible upon the raw metal. The artist’s successive denotations emphasize the sculpture’s spectacular arcs, once more pointing to this formative moment in Calder’s career - in the late 30s he not only mastered three-dimensional abstraction in metal, but he also invented the method of construction for his future monumental works. With both Devil Fish and Untitled, we experience the joyous creativity of a master of fluid form and bold graphics, eloquently described by Alexander S. C. Rower in the essay on the aesthetic evolution of Calder’s work from 1937-1945: “The upright orientation of Calder’s freestanding sculpture and the beautifully curving silhouettes of its cut and bent forms underscore the new organic strain in Calder’s art, one that alludes to forms in the natural world without being tied specifically to any one of them.” (Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art, Alexander Calder, 1898-1976, 1998, p. 136) Of the evolution of his methods, Glimcher writes, “In Calder’s hands these technologies transformed art, just as it had transformed the cities that the monumental stabiles would soon inhabit. Among all the great innovations by all the great artists of the first half of the century, this may well have been the one that made abstraction truly modern.” (Calder: From Model to Monument, Op. Cit. p. 8)
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