Throughout the history of art, there have been many wonderful examples of artists who have revered their physicians so much that they have gifted them with works of art. The story of Dr Gachet is perhaps the best known, as Vincent van Gogh’s doctor was in fact a sitter for one of the artist’s most celebrated paintings. Francis Bacon’s close bond with his physician Dr Paul Brass also comes to mind, as does Willem de Kooning’s with Dr Henry Vogel. Count among them Dr Philip Larkin who included as his patients two artists that greatly impacted the legacy of art in the 20th century: Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder.
Dr Larkin practiced urology for nearly 50 years in White Plains, a suburb just outside New York City, where he was well known throughout the medical community as a skilled and compassionate physician. It was the older artist Duchamp who was first in Dr Larkin’s care, and indeed it was the enigmatic Dadaist who referred his friend Alexander Calder to the doctor.
In the 1970s, Dr Larkin, with his wife Aimee and their children in tow, paid a visit to his patient and, by this point, friend Alexander Calder’s barn in Roxbury, Connecticut. This casual drive would precipitate what would become a cherished family story. Adjusting a series of levers and pulleys, the artist lowered his mobile, Various Shapes, Colors, Planes, to eye level where he would add his iconic monogram and gift them the work that he created in 1951. That same afternoon Dr Larkin carefully packed the precious mobile into his station wagon, nestled safely between his children in the backseats, and drove home. Since that fateful day nearly half a century ago, the work has hung prominently in the Larkins’ home and has been publicly exhibited only once, at the 1952 Towers and Gongs show at the Kurt Valentin Gallery. It has never been sold, underscoring the importance of its appearance at auction.
Calder’s mobiles were generally untitled; the fact that Various Shapes, Colors, Planes bears a title that very literally describes the arrangements of the work’s elements is a clear distinguishing factor. The composition invites comparisons with cosmological concepts, a lasting fascination for Calder. “The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the universe, or a part of it. For that is rather a large model to work from” (Calder as cited in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Calder, Cologne, 1998, p. 20). And indeed when viewed with these overtones of cosmic ambition, the various forms of the present work suggest stars, moons and other celestial bodies orbiting around a central axis: an entire universe contained in an enchanting microcosm.