- Alexander Calder
- Flying Dragon
- signed with initials and dated 75 on the tail
sheet metal, bolts and paint
Perls Galleries, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1977
Jean Lipman and Margaret Aspinwall, Alexander Calder and His Magical Mobiles, New York, 1981, p. 69, illustrated in color
Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Alexander Calder 1898-1976, Cologne, 2002, p. 89, illustrated
There are two maquettes for Flying Dragon: an intermediate maquette (144 x 228 x 132 in.) currently in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and a smaller version (exact dimensions unknown) in a private collection.
My objects assume their appropriate size all by themselves. Some ask to stay small, others to grow.
Alexander Calder (Maurice Bruzeau, Calder, New York, 1979, p. 15)
The soaring red curves of Flying Dragon stand as a testament to Alexander Calder’s unparalleled ability to combine engineering skill with aesthetic refinement. Whether designing for a private sculpture garden or an expansive urban space, Calder was the foremost choice for collectors, architects, curators and public institutions in the creation of large-scale sculptures. Flying Dragon belongs to a remarkable legacy of stabiles located across the globe from Spoleto, Italy to Saché, France to Mexico City to numerous cities in the United States (New York, Chicago, Hartford, Washington, D.C. and Detroit). La Grande Voile (1969) situated at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusettes and La Grande Vitesse (1969) in Grand Rapids, Michigan both demonstrate Calder's gift for artistic harmony within a public space. The marriage of graceful form with Herculean scale appears effortless for Calder, who adapted his training in mechanical engineering and knowledge of ship building to create over 300 monumental works that seem to hover between pure abstraction and inventive organic representation.
Calder trained at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, earning his mechanical engineering degree in 1919. However, after holding a series of odd jobs – including work on a freighter – by 1923 Calder had found his true calling and began training at The Arts Students League in New York. In doing so, Calder was continuing a family tradition; both his father and grandfather were prominent Philadelphia artists, commissioned to create many public works. In the early 1930s, greatly influenced by a visit to the studio of Joan Miró, Calder began to experiment with abstract compositions. Calder’s early training in engineering greatly facilitated the realization of innovative three dimensional forms and genres, inspiring the new sculptural terms ‘mobile’ and ‘stabile’, coined by Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. Calder would adapt these forms to an uncanny variety of materials and scales, ultimately achieving the grand proportions of his monumental outdoor stabiles, such as Flying Dragon, that constituted the most productive and important activity of his later career.
Flying Dragon belongs to a noble line of fantastical creatures dating back to Calder’s first monumental stabile, Whale, of 1937. Calder’s exploration of monolithic proportions was interrupted by the metal shortages inflicted by World War II. As the metal shortages came to an end in the postwar years, Calder’s experiments with large metal sculptures resumed, aided by a boost in the civic pride and economic prosperity of the postwar era that created opportunities for outdoor sculpture on an unprecedented scale.
Calder’s genius and dexterity were extraordinarily adaptable to the large-scale. With the use of table-top sized maquettes and larger scale-models to determine composition, proportions and fabrication technique, Calder was able to translate a conception into a finely engineered object that would stand the test of time and nature while existing in harmony with its environment. As the scale and weight of his objects grew, Calder turned to ironwork technicians working under his direction to realize his creations. As the scale grew to even larger proportions in the 1960s and 1970s, with works such as Flying Dragon and Stegosaurus (1973), the technicians would also produce large-scale working models. Smaller than the final work but monumental in their own right, these large-scale models would serve to confirm the calculations for the structural integrity of the work, which had to be both rigid and flexible. The large-scale model for Flying Dragon is in the North Sculpture Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a masterful addition to this great museum’s collection, inaugurating the renovations of the sculpture garden completed in the early 1990s.
Calder’s deft engineering skill and nimble mind made possible the creation of innovative forms such as Flying Dragon by allowing the construction process itself to evolve along with the shape of the object. Describing his fabrication process, Calder said: “I try something new each time. With the model at three meters you can wobble it and see where it gives, where the vibrations occur, and then you can put reinforcement there. If a plate seems flimsy, I put a rib on it, and if the relation between the two plates is not rigid, I put a gusset between them – that’s the triangular piece – and butt it to both surfaces. How to construct them changes with each piece; you invent the bracing as you go, depending on the form of each object” (Jean Lipman, Calder’s Universe, New York, 1976, p. 308)
According to Jacques Bazillon of the Société Biémont (Calder’s fabricator in Saché; Segre’s Iron Works was his fabricator in Connecticut), Calder supervised each stage of the work and “his main concern, and he insisted on respecting it, [that] the finished work recalled in its execution the feeling of craftsmanship, and ‘the scars of workmanship’ remained visible.” (Y. Fischer, ed., Calder: the Jerusalem Stabile, Jerusalem, 1980, n.p.) Thus the construction technique of the stabiles becomes part of its aesthetic value. The ribbing, exposed bolts and gussets create a dynamic texture and lend a greater visual interest to the individual surfaces as well as to the form as a whole.
A classic example of Calder’s greatest stabiles, Flying Dragon possesses a graceful, curving silhouette that belies the weight of the material and the sheer size of the elements. Similar to the Flamingo (1973, Federal Center Plaza, Chicago) and Eagle (1971, Seattle Art Museum), this stabile is seemingly captured just as the `dragon' lifts from the ground and reaches for the sky. Tthe curving planes extend outward and upward, swelling and undulating in a sweeping gestural form. With all three stabiles, the electric red paint adds an element of vitality and expectation as the mythological beast or bird-like forms soar into the air. The bent forms, pierced wing and dynamic rhythm of steel arcs and projections in Flying Dragon imply the organic strain in Calder’s work that alludes to nature, but is not overtly literal. In a delightful contradiction related to a masterful interplay of positive and negative space in the round, the massive work is given the unique visual buoyancy that is the hallmark of Calder’s monumental work.