The artist’s preferred palette of bold colours is central to the present composition as gestural fields of saturated yellow, orange, red and blue permeate the canvas’s muted grey background. Calder turned to abstraction in 1930 after a cathartic visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in Paris, where he was greatly impressed by the environmental installation. Calder mused upon his experience in Mondrian’s studio, as well as the trajectory towards abstraction in his work: “I think that at that time and practically ever since, the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof…What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colours and temperatures… some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form” (Alexander Calder, ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me’, Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, Vol. 18, no. 3, Spring 1951, p. 8). In 1931, Calder joined the influential group Abstraction-Création, alongside artists such as Mondrian, Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinsky and Jean Hélion. The group’s enriching dialogue on abstract art and constructivism greatly informed Calder’s visual language throughout the rest of his exceptionally productive career, and two major retrospectives on his work in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943 and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1964, profoundly illuminated this influence.
While the composition of Smeary offers a distinct emphasis on abstraction, the canvas’s non-figurative picture plane is interrupted by the form of two butterflies floating in space above swift, gestural brushstrokes. The figuration imbues the work with a deeply uplifting quality, and an intrinsic sense of liveliness was expressed by the artist himself: “Above all, I feel art should be happy and not lugubrious” (Alexander Calder cited in: Solange Thierry, Ed., The Intimate World of Alexander Calder, New York 1989, p. 1). The presence of the butterflies might also recall Calder’s early years studying at the Art Students League in the early 1920s, when he practiced sketching animals at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. Yet perhaps most importantly, the floating, flying insects seem to suggest Calder’s great desire for motion, a desire that is evident through every medium with which he worked. Here the kinetic nature inherent to his sculptural practice is translated to canvas, where abstract brushstroke and careful figuration converge in a poignant sense of movement. The same year Smeary was executed, Marcel Duchamp poetically meditated upon Calder’s visual orchestration, philosophically claiming that his work exhibited, “Pure joie de vivre. The art of Calder is the sublimation of a tree in the wind” (Marcel Duchamp, ‘Alexander Calder’, Collection of the Société Anonyme, New Haven 1950, online).
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