Alexander Calder was one of the 20th 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 changed our idea of sculpture in the process. More than any other 20th century sculptor aside from perhaps Constantin Brancusi, Calder was responsible for the creation of a new sculptural dialect which he announced in an interview at the time of his first New York gallery show since his conversion to abstraction in 1930. " 'Why must art be static?' demanded Alexander Calder calmly as he closed his exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery today. '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 in: "Objects to Art Being Static, So He Keeps it in Motion," New York World-Telegram, June 11, 1932).
Of all of Alexander Calder's considerable body of work, he is best remembered for his hanging mobiles and his invention of this sculptural form may be considered as his greatest contribution to the history of 20th Century art. Feats both of Calder's fertile and inquisitive mind and his extraordinary affinity for engineering, the mobiles show Calder at his most technically adept and conceptually inventive. Sumac VI of 1952 is a classic example of Calder's mature work in his most desirable and captivating format: the mobile. The diversity of balance and axis in this complex aerial composition is full of the cadence and dexterity that are unique to Calder's canon of suspended forms, moving in a sublime metallic ballet of ever-changing composition. Renowned for their outstanding beauty and craftsmanship, the mobiles of Calder are testament to his technical skill, imaginative genius and talent for organic composition and in these respects Sumac VI is outstanding.
Calder began making mobiles as a young artist in Paris in the early 1930s, when attempting to find a suitable model to translate the Modernists' paintings of abstract form into three-dimensional space. The immediate and decisive event that transformed Calder from the renowned creator of his wire Circus to a master of abstraction was his famous visit to Piet Mondrian's studio in October 1930. Calder observed that Mondrian's strict neo-plastic principles were projected from his paintings onto the overall environment of the studio. His surroundings were rendered in the basic components of his painterly theory from the reductive palette of purist colors, such as red, to the one white wall containing geometric paper rectangles that could be moved into various compositions. Calder intuitively sensed the creative possibilities of applying geometric and biomorphic abstraction to spatial constructions, and this epiphany was the catalyst for his inventions of the new sculptural types: stabiles, mobiles and the hybrid standing mobiles.
Yet in contrast to this anecdotal conversion to abstraction, Sumac VI testifies that Calder's genius for organic form assured that figuration and the lush dynamism of nature would not disappear from his work. There are approximately twenty vine-related Sumac sculptures in Calder's oeuvre, including the present work as well as Just a Sumac to You, Dear (ca. 1965, Milwaukee Art Museum) and Sumac II (1952, The Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln). Leaves and sinuous vines had long been a delicately seductive influence on the undulating lines of Calder's mobiles from the earliest black monumental mobiles such as Eucalyptus (1940, Private Collection) and S-Shaped Vine (1946, The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica) to the standing mobiles such as the sumptuous Bougainvillier (1947, Jon and Mary Shirley). Sumac VI and its sister eponymous sculptures, all created from the 1950s through the early 1960s, are paradigmatic of this motif that combines Calder's proclivities toward the organic and the architectonic. In its most familiar form, the sumac is a plant with very symmetrical arrays of leafs, all in evenly spaced rows of red - a color that is central to Calder's canon throughout the media of sculpture, paintings and works on paper. In a 1962 interview, Calder claimed, "I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish that I'd been a fauve in 1905." (the artist quoted in: Katherine Kuh, "Calder," The Artist's Voice:Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, pp. 38-51). The enlivening properties of red are ideal for Calder's composite elements that exist as discrete volumes of color in space. The movement of these intensely bright and contrasting elements is determined by the air around them as they interact with their three-dimensional space. The monochromatic palette highlights Calder's focus on form and movement as the essential sculptural component.
These qualities in Sumac VI also speak to the affinity between Calder and his life-long friend Joan Miró, whom he met in Paris in 1928. Both artists shared the ambition to create a new understanding of art based on a focused engagement with color, line and form to explore spatial composition. Observers have long recognized the similarities and resonance between Calder's greatest sculptural achievements and Miró's painterly inventions in his series of Constellations, a title shared by several of Calder's greatest wood wall sculptures of the 1940s. In viewing Miró's Ciphers and Constellations in Love with a Woman (Constellation) (1941, The Art Institute of Chicago), one can almost imagine the individual red elements of Calder's Sumac VI melded into Miró's evocative array of surrealist and anthropomorphic shapes. In studying the contrast between the two works, one can appreciate anew the radical nature of the contrapuntal, elegant, dancing and swirling red forms of Sumac VI. Springing forth in graceful arcs of horizontal and vertical depth, Sumac VI attests to Calder's success in bringing form, color and line out into the space inhabited by the viewer, thus bringing traditional sculpture off the pedestal.