Lot 29
  • 29

Alexander Calder

1,800,000 - 2,500,000 USD
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  • Alexander Calder
  • Various Shapes, Colors, Planes
  • incised with artist's monogram on horizontal element
  • sheet metal, wire and paint
  • 35 1/4 by 55 3/4 by 10 1/2 in. 89.5 by 141.6 by 26.7 cm.
  • Executed in 1951.


The artist
Dr. Philip C. Larkin (gift of the above circa 1970)
Thence by descent to the present owners


New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, Alexander Calder: Gongs and Towers, January - February 1952, n.p., no. 28 (text)


This mobile is in very good condition overall Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at +1 (212) 606-7254 for the report prepared by Jackie Wilson of Wilson Conservation, LLC.
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

Gifted directly from the artist to Dr. Philip Larkin in the 1970s, Various Shapes, Colors, Planes exemplifies in stunning purity Alexander Calder’s creative tenets that have come to define his career, and moreover bears remarkable provenance, having remained in the Larkin family collection since its acquisition. Dr. Larkin joins a long and venerable history of physicians becoming dear friends and recipients of their artist patients’ works, a tradition that includes Dr. Paul Gachet and Vincent van Gogh, Dr. Henry Vogel and Willem de Kooning, and Dr. Paul Brass and Francis Bacon, among others. Beyond their clinical interactions as physician and patient, Dr. Larkin developed a deep friendship with Calder, one day, together with his wife, Aimee, visiting with their children in tow. This casual drive would precipitate a memorable moment, in which Calder invited the family into his studio, began adjusting levers and pulleys and slowly lowered the present work to eye level, after which he applied his iconic monogram and gifted Various Shapes, Colors, Planes to Dr. Larkin. That same afternoon, Dr. Larkin carefully packed the precious mobile into his station wagon, nestled safely between his children in the backseat, and drove home. Since that fateful day nearly half a century ago, the work has hung prominently in the Larkins’ home and has never been publicly exhibited, underscoring the importance of its appearance today as a truly historic event.Calder was especially generous in gifting his art to those around him whom he cherished; he gave freely and thoughtfully, presenting his wife with charming one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, his parents with sculpted metal animals, and notably Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, with a unique standing mobile that remained in Barr’s collection for fifty years, nearly the same period of time the present work hung in the Larkins’ home. Testament to the close bond between Calder and Dr. Larkin, the artist’s family requested that, following Calder’s untimely death and in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to White Plains Hospital Medical Center in White Plains, New York, the institution where Dr. Larkin practiced. The gifting of Various Colors, Shapes, Planes directly to a beloved friend and supporter endows the present work with an even greater narrative resonance. 

The genesis of Dr. Larkin's relationship with Calder is equally compelling. In the early 1960s, Marcel Duchamp, the iconoclastic father of modern art, became one of Dr. Larkin's patients. While Dr. Larkin was operating on Duchamp using a local anesthetic, the artist asked a nurse for the necessary supplies and proceeded to draw a remarkable likeness of Dr. Larkin with the artist's own feet framing the doctor's head. Duchamp, who had become obsessed with the game of chess, corresponded with Dr. Larkin regularly and, on one occasion, used chess cards of his own design to send a note to the doctor. These items, like Various Shapes, Colors, Planes have remained with the family for decades. Duchamp is noteworthy not only for his own work but also because it was he who advised his friend, Calder, to use the word 'mobile' to describe Calder's new form of art. Most importantly, when Calder became ill and required a surgeon, he turned to his friend Duchamp and the venerable Dadaist recommended Dr. Larkin.

Comprising ten painted metal elements in the artist’s signature colors of black, white, red and yellow, the present work gracefully cascades from its suspension in a stacked diagonal that harmonizes a vertical descent with an outward expansion. The eponymous Various Shapes, Colors, Planes presents a bevy of multifaceted geometric shapes and more organically hewn pieces. Five black elements stretch across the composition, two of which anchor the outermost edge of the mobile’s circumference. The lowest point, a red oblong disc, echoes the more diminutive black round at the apex of the mobile. A rounded scalene triangle shoots upward, its singular color and pierced apertures imbuing the present work with a more ethereal air. Sharp angles and strict geometry abut amorphous shapes in an elegant descent that nevertheless retains an upward trajectory due to Calder’s brilliant conception and achievement of carving space and movement into air. The distinctive title is also unique to this work, an individuating factor from the myriad of Untitled mobiles within the artist’s prolific oeuvre, and an accurate analysis of the disparate parts’ arrangement. The black triangular element lies parallel to the floor almost exactly perpendicular to the pierced white part, a juxtaposition reflected among other elements within this mobile. The entire arrangement invites associations with metaphorical concepts, a concern which was of lasting fascination to Calder: “I think…the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the universe, or a part of it. For that is a rather large model to work from.” (The artist cited in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Calder, Cologne, 1998, p. 20) When viewed with these overtones of cosmic ambition, the various forms of the present work suggest dynamic forces orbiting around a central axis: an entire universe contained in an enchanting microcosm. Calder revolutionized the concept of traditional sculpture by utilizing the full potential of bodies in motion through the remarkable manipulation of metal and wire, constructed to further the kinetic possibilities of art. Of this new creative world he discovered early in his career, Calder exclaimed: “Why must art be static?...You look at an abstraction, sculptured or painted, an intensely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect, but it is always still. The next step in sculpture is motion.” (The artist, cited in Howard Greenfield, The Essential Alexander Calder, New York, 2003, p. 67)

In the exhibition catalogue for Alexander Calder: Gongs and Towers at Curt Valentin Gallery in 1952, the seminal early show in which the present work was displayed, James Johnson Sweeney writes of Calder: “In his mobiles he has taken sculpture out of its old field and given it a new dimension. He has kept his respect for the grammar of the old tradition and observes it always. But through his work he has uncovered new dialect and has developed a poetry in it that is fresh, young and his own.” (James Johnson Sweeney, “Alexander Calder’s Mobiles,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, Alexander Calder: Gongs and Towers, 1952, n.p.) This show also debuted many of Calder's most celebrated sculptures, including Tower with Painting in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Bifurcated Tower in Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Perfectly embodying his “poetry,” Various Shapes, Colors, Planes remains as a testament to Calder’s investigation into the possibilities of art and the enduring friendship between the artist and his physician, Dr. Larkin.

This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A03134.