Lot 3
  • 3

Alexander Calder

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Alexander Calder
  • Two Red Petals in the Air
  • Incised with the artist's monogram and dated 58 on the largest black element
  • Painted sheet metal and wire hanging mobile
  • 40 by 54 by 20 in.
  • 101.6 by 137.1 by 50.8 cm
  • Executed in 1958, this work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York under application number A07334.


Perls Galleries, New York

Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Hirsh, Beverly Hills, California

Newspace Gallery, Los Angeles

Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman in October 1977


Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977 - 1979 (on loan)


Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for the condition report for this lot.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“'Why must art be static? You look at an abstraction, sculptured or painted, an intensely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without a meaning. It would be perfect, but it is always still” (the artist quoted in "Objects to Art Being Static, So He Keeps it in Motion," New York World-Telegram, June 11, 1932).


“There is more of the unpredictable about [the mobiles] than in any other human creation. No human brain, not even their creator’s, could possibly foresee all of the complex combinations of which they are capable. A general destiny of the movement is sketched for them, and they are left to work it out for themselves” (Jean-Paul Sartre cited in Jean Lipman, Calder’s Universe, New York, 1976, p. 261).

Among Alexander Calder's considerable body of work, he is best remembered for his hanging mobiles, and his insightful invention of this avant-garde sculptural form is heralded as his greatest contribution to the history of 20th century art. In this respect, the artist’s extraordinarily dazzling Two Red Petals in the Air from 1958 stands as a true testament to Calder's intuitive transformation of painted linear abstraction into modernist three-dimensional forms that, at their most eloquent, activate the space they inhabit. Through his remarkable manipulation of metal and wire, Calder generated a truly groundbreaking corpus that definitively revolutionized the nature of the sculpted form. Liberating sculpture from its previously defining principles of absolute stasis and stability, he embraced instead the dynamics of motion, celebrating the possibilities for organic movement in the visual arts. A feat both of Calder's fertile and inquisitive mind and his extraordinary affinity for engineering, Two Red Petals in the Air shows Calder at his most technically adept and conceptually inventive. The diversity of balance and axis in this complex aerial composition is replete with the cadence and dexterity that are unique to Calder's canon of suspended forms, moving in a sublime metallic ballet of ever-changing composition.

The physical components of Two Red Petals in the Air comprise the absolute essentials of Calder’s aesthetic. Individually painted metal elements, in the artist’s preferred palette of vibrant primary hues, seem to float within a construction of astonishingly delicate beauty. The single blue element, the splayed branches of variously shaped yellow elements, and the two red petals that perch whimsically atop the entire composition, are suspended in perfect counterbalance to one another in the present mobile; as the slightest breath of air wafts amongst the discs and forms, they begin to rotate smoothly and organically, each in turn inspiring movement in the others that surround them. The two wider horizontal black elements on the opposite end of the mobile act to stabilize the composition, seamlessly offsetting the ethereal gliding movements of the individual colored shapes as they each pursue their own unique path whilst maintaining an undeniable sense of cohesion and total resolution. Infused with his innate gift for design and his keen appreciation for nature and all its creatures, Calder’s mobiles are often populated with suggestions of living flora and fauna; here, the red petals as made explicit by the title evoke the lush dynamism of nature, paradigmatic of this revered motif that combines Calder's proclivities toward the organic and the architectonic.

Alexander Calder was one of the twentieth century's most prolific artists in terms not only of the breadth and diversity of his oeuvre but also in the boundless wealth of his sculptural inventiveness. Immersed in the creative world of 1930s Paris, Calder was attentive to the most avant-garde aesthetics of the decade but these influences liberated his own ingenuity rather than simply co-opting his aesthetic practice. Although Calder joined Mondrian, Arp, Delaunay and others in the Abstraction-Création group by invitation in 1931, he ultimately did not seek identification with the great artistic movements surrounding him. Calder chose to give birth to his own revolution and forever changed our idea of sculpture in the process. Calder began his career, and established his international reputation, in the late 1920s with a series of figurative wire sculptures, yet he remained committed to achieving the elusive breakthrough that would enable him to forge an entirely new form of artistic expression. The answer arrived during a now legendary visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930, where the sight of squares of colored paper, arranged on the wall in the manner of one of Mondrian’s paintings, inspired Calder to think of the kinetic possibilities of art. From that seminal moment, Calder remained steadfast in his exploration of sculpture’s potential for kinetic movement, and Two Red Petals in the Air from 1958 is exemplary of this artist's inimitably innovative and undeniably significant oeuvre.

In a catalogue essay for Calder’s seminal 1946 exhibition at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre distilled the unique complexity of the artist’s mobiles: “His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing but themselves: they are, that is all; they are absolutes. Chance, ‘the devil’s share,’ is perhaps more important in them than in any other of man’s creations. They have too many possibilities and are too complex for the human mind, even their creator’s, to predict their combinations. Calder establishes a general destiny of motion for each mobile, then he leaves it on its own. It is the time of day, the sun, the station between the servility of a statue and the independence of nature. Each of its evolutions is the inspiration of a split-second. One sees the artist’s main theme, but the mobile embroiders it with a thousand variations. It is a little swing tune, as unique as ephemeral as the sky or the morning. If you have missed it, you have missed it forever” (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialist on Mobilist,” Art News, 46, December 1947, pp. 22-23). As brilliantly described by Sartre, the best examples of Calder’s mobile sculptures, such as Two Red Petals in the Air, are thoughtfully and deliberately composed by him and then left to commune autonomously and naturally with their physical environment, the precise quality of their movements dependent on the slightest atmospheric shift. Ultimately, this serene work perfectly epitomizes the emotions and attitudes suggested in Calder’s own conclusion on the art form he pioneered: “When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life…” (the artist cited in Howard Greenfield, The Essential Alexander Calder, New York, 2003, p. 47).


By Phyllis Tuchman

Alexander Calder was an American original. With wit, imagination, technical know-how, brevity, and unending invention, he created mobiles that move with the breeze, stabiles that resemble prehistoric creatures, monumental public sculptures, tiny pieces that can be held in a child’s hand, jewelry, household objects, toys, wire portraits, mechanized abstract sculptures, and a pint-sized, fully operational circus. His art is ubiquitous and beloved.

Calder’s career had one of the more unusual arcs in the history of art. From his father and grandfather, who were both widely respected sculptors, the young boy, who was born in Philadelphia in 1898, learned the ins and outs of how-to-make a statue in bronze or from stone. In 1923, armed with an engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, he entered the Art Students League, where some of his teachers were friends of his dad and his mom, who was a painter. A few years after that, he was in the thick of things in Paris, participating in a community where abstract art was the lingua franca and Surrealism was spicing up the pot. During his frequent trips to the City of Light, Calder developed a lifelong friendship with Joan Miró; was taken under the wing of Marcel Duchamp, who tagged his young friend’s new fangled art with the name, mobile; and had a consequential visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian.

When you read the names of the people Calder knew, the places to which he travelled, and the institutions where his art is housed, the American artist sounds like a twentieth century reincarnation of the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. Spending portions of the year based in Salisbury, Connecticut as well as Saché, France appears to have kept both he and his art constantly refreshed until his death in November 1976.

Calder painted Two Red Petals in the Air with his favorite palette: red, yellow and blue as well as black, another of his go-to colors. The reference to petals in the title of the work makes you think of flowers. The network of wires that turn the red, yellow and blue circular, three-sided, and four-sided biomorphic shapes also call to mind lines of poetry and music, too. The yellow discs diminish in size with the top one having the most weight. In size and color, the blue element projects a sense of balance. The two flat black shapes function like ballast. Calder would have determined all of this instinctually.

All in all, with his deft touch, Calder achieves maximum effect.