Some of the most significant formal and kinetic developments early in the artist’s career are perfectly crystallized in the intimately sized Fish and Water Weeds, enchantingly capturing Calder's inimitable drawing in space. Five whirls of curlicue adorned wire cascade down from the apex of the frame, suspending two gracefully outlined fish, which have been reduced to an almost simplistic and economical use of line. The floating forms of hammered brass catch the light as the abstracted weeds and fish gently sway in midair, adding a lustrous texture to the work and mimicking the effects of light shimmering underwater. In a brief introductory text meant to inspire younger artists to draw, titled Animal Sketching, Calder described his immediate and direct approach: “Animals – Action. These two words go hand in hand in art. …Their lives are of necessity active and their activities are reflected in an alert grace of line even when they are in repose or asleep. Indeed, because of their markings many animals appear to be awake when they are sleeping, and many mammals sleep so lightly that even when apparently asleep they will move their ears in the direction of a sound that is inaudible to us…So there is always a feeling of perpetual motion about animals and to draw them successfully this must be borne in mind.” (Alexander Calder, Animal Sketching, Pelham, NY, 1926, p. 9) Calder captures the animation latent in living creatures in the present work, allowing nature itself to dictate the movements of both the fish and weeds, and indeed imbuing his brass animals with life.
A descendant of sculptors Alexander Milne Calder (the artist’s grandfather) and Stirling Calder (the artist’s father), Alexander “Sandy” Calder was first introduced to art at a very young age when his parents used him as a model for their sculptures and paintings. Through acquaintances of his parents Alexander and Nanette, Calder met several patrons and artists who furthered his unconventional artistic education. From an early age, Calder experimented with manipulating small pieces of brass into minute objects; he would subsequently construct sculptures for his parents, jewelry for his sister’s dolls, and even a small wagon with his uncle, Ronald Calder. Following his graduation from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1919, Calder occupied a number of disparate jobs, none of which satisfied him as much as the drawing classes he took at night. In 1923, Calder returned to school and enrolled at the Art Students League, which provided a more progressive and structured schooling than his upbringing. Having settled on what was arguably his destiny as an artist, Calder began to sketch constantly, finding inspiration in everything from animals to sporting events to the circus. Although he would eventually turn to abstraction, Calder sometimes returned to the figure, evident in the present work. It was not until 1925 that Calder would execute his first sculpture in wire, and like the present work, it was zoomorphic. Of this crucial moment in his career, Calder reflected: “I had no clock and faced south, so I made a sundial with a piece of wire – a wire rooster on a vertical rod with radiating lines at the foot indicating the hours. I’d made things out of wire before – jewelry, toys – but this was my first effort to represent an animal in wire.” (Alexander Calder, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, New York, 1966, pp. 71-72) Calder’s love for animals and action would persist as a common theme in his jewelry, drawings, mobiles, and sculptures, a fascination that is captured in the enchanting Fish and Water Weeds.
Like his contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gerald Murphy, and Man Ray, Calder was drawn to Paris as an affordable place to live and a captivating environment in which to experiment with new forms and materials within his practice. It was in Paris that Calder met the Spanish artist, Joan Miró, and gained introduction to the work of the Surrealists; although Calder would never lend himself to their ‘pure psychic automatism’ (the phrase André Breton coined to define the Surrealist movement), he did align with their sensibility of freeing the imagination and the Subconscious. Joined to Miró by his love of the unconventional and the unexpected, Calder began ‘drawing in space’ with wire, creating portraits of friends and acquaintances, among them Fernand Léger. Not only did Calder veraciously capture his models’ likenesses, but he also succeeded in imbuing these works with each subject’s individual personality. Inspired by the exuberant movements of the vivacious and internationally renowned dancer Josephine Baker, Calder suspended several of his wire portraits of her from threads so that they moved freely and more accurately represented the dancer’s elegance and grace. Of this momentous breakthrough achieved in the late 1920s, Joan M. Marter elaborates: “These suspended wire constructions took Calder one step closer to the creation of his wind-driven mobiles of the 1930s. Even before he began composing abstract elements to form mobiles, Calder had taken into account the delicate equilibrium the sculpture would need to hang properly and move freely.” (Joan M. Marter, Alexander Calder, Cambridge, 1991, p. 60)
Even before he became known for his iconic mobiles and stabiles, Calder was well-regarded both in America and Europe, and by 1930 had held several exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. The present work, although executed in the early 1940s when the artist had already visibly demonstrated a shift toward abstraction, remains a critical coalescence of the breakthroughs that would transform Calder’s practice from drawings to wire sculptures to suspended sculptures to the quintessential mobiles and stabiles with which he would forever be associated.