Private Collection, Vannes
Sale: Tajan, Paris, Art Abstrait et Contemporain, 10 June 1996, Lot 66
Sale: Tajan, Paris, Art Abstrait et Contemporain, 29 April 1997, Lot 42
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
A geometric impostor in its surrounding space, Untitled occupies and converts its environment with a subtle lyricism. A model of balance and equilibrium it is at once beautifully simple and ingeniously sophisticated. Delicately oscillating, its organic forms are synonymous with floating leaves and sinuous vines that react to the inherent rhythms and dynamism of nature. Altered with every gasp of wind, its visual variations are seemingly endless. The wires connecting the brightly coloured planes are imbued with a vigorous force; transformed into aerodynamic linear components they subtly control the balance and axis in this complex aerial composition.
Calder’s distinct sculptural aesthetic and conceptual ingenuity was the fruit of an aptitude for engineering and a unique artistic talent. Born into a family of sculptors, Calder continued an acclaimed heritage. Both his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder and his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, had earned fame and fortune for their heroic sculptural monuments. Nevertheless, Calder himself first pursued a different path. With a talent for mathematics and an interest in the mechanical underpinnings of objects, he enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey and majored in mechanical engineering in 1919. However, his inherent artistic talent and creative energy finally prevailed and four years after graduating from the Stevens Institute he realised that his true vocation was art. Following in his parent’s footsteps he moved to Paris in 1926. Immersing himself in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of les années folles, the ‘Roaring Twenties’, he truly came into his own, creating his acclaimed Cirque Calder (1926-31), a miniature circus of small wire sculptures. This corpus not only marked the beginning of Calder’s work with metal and wire but attracted the attention of Paris’ cultural elite. Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp all rushed to admire Calder’s circus. Freeing themselves from the constraints of artistic traditions these avant-garde artists and the corresponding movements of Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism provided a highly conducive environment for Calder’s nascent artistic production.
Despite rejecting any association with a particular group or movement, Calder’s creative vision ran parallel to several artistic developments of the time. The concept of creating artworks in motion, for example, was a prevalent leitmotif during the early 1920s. Duchamp created the motorised sculptureRotative plaques verre, optique de précision in 1920 and went on to build the sculpture Rotative Demisphere, optique de precision three years later. In Russia the concept of kinetic art was explored by the artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pavsner, who discussed the notion of moving art in the 1920 Issue of their Constructivist manifesto, whilst Alexander Rodchenko’s hanging sculpture from 1920 was widely publicised in art publications of the time. In line with this conceptual theme, Calder created several motorised sculptures. However, despite earning him much admiration from his friend and patron Duchamp, Calder rejected these mechanised artworks in favour of handcrafted constellations. Searching for something more lyrical and surprising, he started creating mobiles that moved in synergy with the natural currents of the air in their surroundings. As Barbara Rose pointed out: “Because the movements were never repeated, they resembled the rhythms of nature rather than the repetitious cycles of the machine” (Ibid., p. 16).
In addition to this, it is perhaps the theorising of Wassily Kandinsky in his influential text ‘Point and Line to Plane’, first published in 1926 under the title of Punkt und Linie zu Flache (the ninth in a series of fourteen Bauhaus books edited by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius) that offers a significant theoretical precedent for Calder’s three-dimensional abstract compositions. Kandinsky wrote on the rhythmic law of counterpoint as contained within the static work of art: “[Counterpoint] sets in motion life itself, through a rhythm displayed between harmonies and the contrasts of colour and form… hereafter, [Kandinsky’s] creations develop with a wealth of variation those visions of beauty, which, controlled by laws of counterpoint, make his artistic message endlessly alive and original as nature itself” (Hilla Rebay, ‘Preface’ in: Wassily Kandinsky, Howard Dearstyne and Hilla Rebay trans., Point and Line to Plane, New York 1974, pp. 8-9). In a similar vein but transposed into three-dimensions, the relationship between the geometric points and horizontal planes of Calder’s sculpture work in counterbalance with colour and curved line to effect an endlessly moving constellation of exquisite balance.
Pioneering paradigms of kinetic art, Calder’s sculptures presented an evocative array of anthropomorphic shapes. Often reminiscent of living flora and fauna they were akin to the brightly coloured works of his life-long friend and fellow artist Joan Miró. Having met in 1928, both artists pursued an art governed by a profound engagement with colour, line and form. With their gracefully controlled linear compositions Calder’s mobiles often bear striking reference to the fanciful figures and saturated colours of the Surrealist works of the Spanish painter. Furthermore, Calder’s vivid three-dimensional constructions command an array of further references and are often considered sculptural translations of the abstract forms of Modernist painters, such as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. A few years after meeting Miró, when visiting the studio of avant-garde hero Piet Mondrian, Calder experienced a crucial creative epiphany. Seeing the artist’s purist aesthetic resonating throughout the entire space, white walls specked with geometric paper rectangles in the reductive palette of primary colours, Calder realised the creative potential of applying geometric and biomorphic abstraction to sculptural constructions.
The significance of Calder’s pioneering artistic innovations, as beautifully amplified by Untitled, has been highlighted in major retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Tate Modern, London, and many more. His eloquent spatial explorations have revolutionised the sculptural practice of the Twentieth Century and have set forms in motion with more lyricism and elegance than any other artist. As Norman Foster succinctly acknowledged: “Look closely at a Calder mobile and the details are direct and tough – the work of an artisan. But stand back and behold the equilibrium, light and fragility, as the separate parts pirouette around each other like dancers or acrobats in a circus, and you realise that the artisan is also a poet” (Norman Foster, ‘Introduction’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Pace Gallery, Calder After the War, 2013, p. 9).
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