Alexander Calder is best known for his groundbreaking contributions to Modern sculpture: abstract constructions of geometric, and later biomorphic shapes that introduced movement to the form. Inspired by a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930 to abandon his figurative compositions—bent-wire constructions of animals and wire-cage portraits of Josephine Baker or Calvin Coolidge—Calder set pure forms of industrial materials in motion, refocusing the medium’s preoccupation with sculptural mass on explorations of space. Marcel Duchamp gave them the name mobiles, to which Jean Arp added the term stabile for his non-moving examples, and later the sculptor would add such elements as sound. Yet it is also for the astounding range of other joyous or startling enterprises he undertook that we remember Calder: the remarkable mechanical figures of wire and recycled materials that comprise Calder’s Circus (1926–31), which so delighted Miró, Cocteau, and Léger when they came to view his performances, and have continued to delight visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art, in whose collection the circus now resides; the haunting fountain he made of flowing mercury from the Almadén mines destroyed by Franco, featured at the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, opposite Picasso’s Guernica; the breathtaking acoustical ceiling panels of floating biomorphic “cloud” shapes he made for the concert hall at the Central University of Caracas, in Venezuela, in 1953.
The permanent collection at the Whitney is home to nearly two hundred works by Calder, not only mobiles from the 1940s and 50s and the large-scale stabile The Cock’s Comb, from 1960, but early animal or human sculptures in wood or brass from 1930 and a sculpture of acrobats in brass wire from 1929—twenty-five sculptures in all, from the 1920s to the 1970s, in addition to the individual figures created for his circus. His early painting Firemen’s Dinner for Brancusi (1926) joins significant numbers of prints and drawings in the collection, in addition to examples of jewelry from the 1940s and tapestries from the 1970s. Ten solo exhibitions of Calder’s work have been organized by the Whitney, including Calder’s Circus, 1972; Calder’s Universe, 1976; and Alexander Calder: The Paris Years: 1926–1933, 2008. The earliest exhibition of his work took place all the way back in 1926, at the Whitney Studio Club on West Fourth Street, and it has appeared in more than two dozen shows at the museum since that time.
Untitled (c. 1954) is among the canvases Calder continued to paint throughout his career, in oil or gouache. He had begun as a painter, abandoning a career as a mechanical engineer to study at the Art Students League from 1923 to 1926, under John Sloan, George Luks, and others. His early canvases in the Ashcan School figurative style gave way, as he joined with the Abstraction-Création group of artists in 1931, to more abstract compositions of geometric shapes in vivid primary colors. This work reflects his style of the 1940s and 1950s, in which circular discs, arcs, spirals, and biomorphic shapes reveal an interest in constellations and spatial perception. Inscribed “pour JD,” this painting was a gift from Calder circa 1958 to Jean Davidson, a journalist Calder first met in 1944. After his marriage to Calder’s older daughter Sandra in 1955, he became one of Calder’s closest confidantes. Calder later dictated his life story to Davidson, which was published in 1966 as Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures.