Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Alexander Calder
1898 - 1976
sheet metal, wire, coloured glass and paint
85 by 100 by 17.1 cm. 33 1/2 by 39 1/2 by 6 3/4 in.
Executed in 1953.
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This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A07938.


Perls Galleries, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
Mary Sisler, New York (acquired from the above in September 1962)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (bequest from the above in 1990)
Acquired from the above by the present owner


Francis Naumann, Ed., The Mary and William Sisler Collection, New York 1984, p. 69, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, January 1988, n.p. (text)
Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters, October 2011 - April 2012, p. 130, no. 95, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

“Sculpture suggests motion, painting suggests light or space. Calder suggests nothing, he fashions real, living motions which he has captured. His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing but themselves: they are, that is all: they are absolutes... These motions, which are meant only to please, to enchant the eye, have nevertheless a profound meaning, a metaphysical one."

Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Existentialist on Mobilist,’ ARTNews, Vol. 46, No. 22, December 1947


A beguiling synthesis of raw material and aesthetic charm, Alexander Calder’s standing mobile Glassy Insect hovers dynamically between the realms of allusion and abstraction. Executed in 1953, the work has exceptional provenance: after being housed in the celebrated collection of Mary Sisler, it was donated to The Museum of Modern Art and remained in their collection for nearly three decades. Evoking a jubilant insect, energetic and alert, the abstract standing mobile resonates with zoomorphic themed artworks from Calder’s sculptural menagerie. The artist’s fascination with the animal kingdom developed from childhood. As a young boy, at the age of eleven, he created his first sculptures: a dog and a duck trimmed from brass sheeting and bent into formation; the duck is kinetic, rocking back and forth when gently tapped. The influence of the dynamics of the natural world on Calder's artistic practice was nothing short of profound, leading him to declare in 1951: "The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from" (Alexander Calder, 'What Abstract Art Means to Me', Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, No. 3, Spring 1951, n.p.). Perched attentively on its steel body and spindly hind legs, with a circular white disc for a head, a black fin for a tail, and two dangling glass fragments in red and blue for antennae, Glassy Insect arouses in its viewer a sensation of delight. At the slightest gust of wind, the sculpture springs into life, transforming from its state of sleepy inertia into a bewitching kinesis that evokes, as in the story of the nutcracker, the magical awakening of toys at night when all the world is sound asleep. Toing-and-froing in a gentle, rhythmic dance, Glassy Insect is enchanting to behold and entrancing to observe.

Calder was born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1898 to a family of artists: his father and grandfather were each renowned sculptors, and his mother was a portrait painter. Determined to pave his own way, Calder began to experiment with unconventional methods and mediums, challenging the classical training of his forefathers in order to forge a radical artistic language driven by his insatiable curiosity, humanism, and thirst for life. His is not an art laden with anguish, nor ruled by the confines of tradition; rather, Calder’s sculptures are imbued with a revitalising sense of dynamism, vigour and ingenuity, reflective of the artist’s personality. The art of Calder, once remarked Marcel Duchamp, is “pure joie de vivre. [It] is the sublimation of a tree in the wind” (Marcel Duchamp, ‘Alexander Calder’, Collection of the Société Anonyme, New Haven 1950, online). Before embarking on a career as an artist, Calder had enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, to study mechanical engineering. He was a talented mathematician, and his four-year degree instilled him with a thorough mastery of tools, of industrial design and of the characteristics of metal – while these qualities later played a role in the creation of his monumental sculptures, Calder's approach to making mobiles was intuitive. For the present work, Calder skilfully manipulated his materials, moulding elements of painted steel, wire and coloured glass into an elegant standing mobile whose captivating magnificence belies its industrial physicality. Glassy Insect captures the spontaneity of nature, immersing its viewer in an enthralling visual experience. As curator Penelope Curtis asserts, “Calder will find a way of making the spell last, embedding the unpredictable, contradictory, (and often syncopated) movements of animals and people into his works” (Penelope Curtis, ‘Performance of Post-performance’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, 2015, p. 17).

In 1952, just a year before the present work was created, Calder was awarded first prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale, marking a period of great international acclaim for the American artist. He continued to perform his iconic Cirque Calder, 1926-31, during this time, in Roxbury, Connecticut; Washington, D. C.; and the Galerie Maeght in Paris. The following year, he began to work on a film which would immortalise his spellbinding production for generations to come. Universally celebrated, Cirque Calder was a beautiful artistic rendering of circus life, complete with miniature contortionists and acrobats, sword eaters, lion tamers and dozens of animals, all rendered in Calder's signature style from an array of found materials such as wire, fabric, leather, rubber, and cork. These models were rigged to perform the various functions of the circus performers they emulated and were operated by Calder himself, signifying an early example of his investigations into kinetic movement in sculpture. Now a part of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Cirque Calder exemplifies the artist's restless creative spirit, and the influence of this seminal work on the rest of his oeuvre is abundantly clear. In Glassy Insect, the mesmerising magic of motion becomes integral to the work: activated by natural air currents, the mobile acquires a life force of its own. "In his mobiles... Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it", wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, musing on his visual poetry; "time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance. Thus the object is always midway between the servility of the statue and the independence of natural events. Each of its twists and turns is an inspiration of the moment" (Jean-Paul Sartre cited in: Chris Turner, trans., The Aftermath of War: Jean-Paul Sartre, Calcutta 2008, n.p.).

Calder was one of the most important sculptors of the Twentieth Century, and greatly influenced a generation of artists through his pioneering investigations into kinetic sculpture. He enjoyed a close and fruitful friendship with the Surrealist painter Joan Miró, and although their works developed along separate trajectories, they often experimented with the same vibrant palette of colours and simple economy of line: indeed, the present standing mobile could almost have sprung from the canvas of one of Miró’s biomorphic abstract paintings, or vice versa. In title and composition alike, Glassy Insect simultaneously evokes a natural creature and its own intrinsic materiality. Dreamily it flits between the two, in a triumphant celebration of the very artifice of art itself.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction