Lot 6
  • 6

Alexander Calder

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Alexander Calder
  • L'Acrobate
  • signed with wire on base
  • wire sculpture on wooden base
  • 45 by 18 by 27.3cm.
  • 17 ½ x 7 1/8 x 10 ¾in.
  • Executed circa 1928, this work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A09664.


Galerie Maeght, Paris
Acquired directly from the above in 1965


'Un Oeuvre de Calder', in: La Méridional,  20 October 1959
Michel Ragon, 'Calder: Mobiles et Stabiles', in: Petite Encyclopédie de l'Art, no. 87, Paris 1967, p. 17, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Calder's Circus, 1972, p. 3, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Musée des Arts Decoratifs (and travelling), Calder Intime, 1989, p. 101, illustrated
Anon., Ugo Mulas/Alexander Calder, Milan 2008, p. 21, illustrated
Arnauld Pierre, Calder: Mouvement et Réalité, Paris 2009, p. 104, illustrated

Catalogue Note

"I think best in wire" the artist cited in: 'Conversation with Bernice Rose' in: Daniel Marchesseau, The Intimate World of Alexander Calder, Paris 1989, p. 122)

Striking perfect equilibrium, poise and seemingly drawn in space, L'Acrobate is an extraordinarily rare and beautiful example of Alexander Calder's wire sculptures. Executed while living in Paris and inspired by the circus Calder made between 1928 and 1930, L'Acrobate belongs to a career defining body of works that recast the boundaries of twentieth-century sculpture. The artist's ability to play with gravitational forces and manipulate the wire into a fluidity of form marks L'Acrobate as one of Calder's earliest masterpieces.

As James Johnson Sweeney noted in his introduction to Calder's retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London in 1962, these new wire sculptures were groundbreaking experiments where the artist elegantly translated the sharp lines of his early drawings into space: "they were now three-dimensional forms drawn in space by wire lines [...] The same incisive grasp of essentials, the same nervous sensibility to form, and the same rhythmic organization of elements, which are virtues of a drawing, were virtues of this new media." (James Johnson Sweeney cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Calder, 1962, p. 8.) By creating such sculptures without weight or density, Calder established space as a constructive factor and the basis for his future work.  Indeed, "the sources of most aspects of Calder's long career can be found in the works he made in Paris" (Mildred Glimcher, 'Calder in Paris: 1929-1933: Transformation from Object to Gesture', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, Calder, 1997-98, p. 179).

Before his move to Paris in 1926, Calder worked for the Police Gazette in New York producing single-line caricature drawings mostly focused on athletic events.  In May 1925 Calder obtained a pass for two weeks to the circus staged by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. The experience completely fascinated him and, although the caricature drawings he made were never published, the circus had a permanent influence on his work. "I spent two full weeks there practically every day and night. I could tell by the music what act was getting on and used to rush to some vantage point. Some acts were better seen from above and others from below" (Alexander Calder, An Autobiography with Pictures, New York 1966, p. 73). During the following year, Calder decided to create a Circus on his own with toys and animated characters.

Calder made and performed his miniature Circus between 1926 and 1932 and it quickly expanded from being contained in two suitcases to five and the show he performed with his diminutive actors lasted more than two hours. The wonders and humorous features of his Circus were for Calder a way to escape every day life as well as to present himself as an avant-garde artist. The characters of Calder's Circus were made out of wire, fabric, found materials and musical instruments, and the artist proved to be very agile and precise with his hands while he was performing his show. As noted by Daniel Marchesseau, "the fragility of his Circus performers contrasted with the agility of their movements. They were the first mobiles – before Calder actually invented the mobiles" (Daniel Marchesseau, The Intimate World of Alexander Calder, Paris 1989, p. 112). Between these years the fame of Calder's Circus spread quickly and the entire Paris art world eventually come to see it (Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Kiki de Montparnasse, Theo Van Doesburg among many others). It was his first great personal success, which continued during his visits to New York where he would organize circus parties. The widespread attention Calder was receiving culminated in 1929 when Pathé Cinema in Paris made a short film in his studio in rue Cels. The film showed Kiki de Montparnasse posing for the artist while he created her portrait in wire.

Some of the characters of his Circus were partly made out of telegraph wire and when Calder's friend, Clay Spohn, suggested making an entire figure out of wire, Calder created Josephine Baker in 1926 - the first wire sculpture made  just after his arrival in Paris. While Josephine Baker, an infamous and controversial dancer at the time, was still very static and frontal in her position, L'Acrobate made a few years later is fully sculptural and its striking sense of balance and displaced centre of gravity evince Calder's exceptional technical dexterity. Indeed, the craftsmanship recalls the artist's training at the Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey between 1915 and 1919. Calder's work was not based on drawings but developed freely from the artist's manipulation of a single length of wire, which notoriously he used to carry with him everywhere. During this fervent period between 1926 and 1931, Calder depicted wire portraits of his close friends, animals, society characters and circus acrobats.

In a letter dated 1929 Calder recorded his historic accomplishment of creating immaterial and transparent sculptures: "Before, the wire studies were subjective, portraits, caricatures, stylized representations of beasts and humans. But these recent things have been viewed from a more objective angle and although their present size is diminutive, I feel that there is no limitation to the scale to which they can be enlarged. There is one thing, in particular, which connects them with history. One of the canons of the futuristic painters, as propounded by Modigliani, was that objects behind other objects should not be lost to view, but should be shown through the others by making the latter transparent. The wire sculpture accomplishes this in a most decided manner" (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Calder, Paris Years 1926-1933, 2008-09, p. 271).

Calder's wire sculptures were successfully exhibited in February 1928 at his first solo show in New York at Weyhe Gallery organized by the critic Carl Zigrosser. In January 1929 Calder opened a show of his wire and wood sculptures at Galerie Billet in Paris where he sold several of the works and received enthusiastic positive criticism. Calder was establishing himself not just as the ringmaster of his very special Circus but as the pioneer of a new plasticity in art. During some of these exhibitions Calder placed white sheets of paper behind the sculptures in order to emphasize them as "designs in space." (Exhibition Catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, Calder, Paris Years 1926-1933, 2008-09, p. 189) Calder's father, a recognized sculptor at the time, identified his son's new wire sculptures as "the essence of art: without an unnecessary twist, perfectly organized and perfectly executed. Beautiful." (Stirling Calder cited in: Daniel Marchesseau, The Intimate World of Alexander Calder, Paris 1989, p. 133)

The elegantly immaterial thread of Calder's wire sculptures that occupy space with an impression of transparency preceded his 'shocking' visit to Mondrian's studio that marked the transition between Calder's figurative wire works and his abstract constructions. With a few exceptions for intimate friends Calder stopped making wire sculptures in 1931. By then Calder had gained the title of "le Roi du Fil de Fer" (The King of Wire) by Fernand Léger (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Calder, 1962), L'Acrobate is a definitive testament not only to Alexander Calder's technical skills and imaginative genius, but also to his transformation of sculpture in the Twentieth Century.