This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A08209.
One of Alexander Calder’s most complex works, Demi Gondola displays the full scope of the artist’s intoxicating form of sculpture. Created in the early 1950s, this work belongs to a discreet group of sculptures that represented an entirely new departure for the artist and several other examples from this series are housed in a number of the world’s major museum collections. Described by the curator of the Whitney’s seminal 1976 Calder retrospective as being among his most outstanding works, the eclectic nature of this large-scale work would come to influence much of his later career. Monumental and industrial, yet at the same time intimate and poetic, Demi Gondola marks a period in Calder’s career when his unique sculptural forms captured the imagination and cemented his reputation as one of the most celebrated artists of the post-war period.
Demi Gondola is an extraordinary work which combines many of the forms and techniques for which the artist has become so well known. Comprised of an open framework of interconnected wires, Calder formed this innovative material into a cage-like structure. Emerging from one side is an elegant appendage which rises to a peak from which he suspends one of his classic mobile forms—comprising of four delicate elements. Inside the body of the work, Calder introduces a triangular component punctuated with two voids (a technique he had begun investigating a few years earlier in order to maintain a sense of lightness within the composition), a small wooden element resembling a fish (one of the artist’s favorite motifs) and a second wooden element which acts almost as an ‘apostrophe’ within the composition as a whole. Taken together these individual elements represent many of the individual motifs that the artist used at different stages of his career; from some of the earliest wire structures he created in the early 1930s, to the wooden elements that the began to introduce later in that decade and finally the hanging mobile forms with which he became synonymous in the 1940s.
Previously known as The Aeroplane—Tower with Six Leaves and a Dot, the present work is now called Demi Gondola from the original title assigned to it by Calder in the inventory drawings he produced for the work in the early 1950s. It belongs to a group of less than a dozen works which he produced during the early 1950s that became known as his Tower sculptures and similar examples from this series are now housed in a number of major museum collections including Tower with Pinwheel, 1951 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Bifurcated Tower, 1950 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Structurally related to his earlier Constellations, these works clearly indulge Calder’s ingenious mind as he worked through the various compositional options that this new form offered him. As is the case here, he often included a “rich compendium of Calder objects” to achieve his fondness for what has been described as “floating objects in space” and was not afraid to switch elements between works until he was satisfied (M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 232).
The architectural quality of these works has been the subject of much conjecture, with Jean Lipman—curator of the Whitney’s 1976 Calder retrospective Calder’s Universe in which Demi Gondola was exhibited—maintaining that “Calder has said he was thinking of oil derricks when he when he made the Towers, but they also suggest a lighthearted remodeling of the Eiffel Tower, as well as the ubiquitous construction cranes that dominate our cityscapes. (A. Calder, quoted by J. Lipman, Calder’s Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1976, p. 263). However it should be remembered that the artist himself was more circumspect, stating that he created “abstractions that are like nothing in life except their manner of reacting” (A. Calder, Abstraction-Creation, Art Non Figuratif, Paris, 1932, p. 6).
1951, the year the present work was executed, was a high point in the artist’s career. Following his triumphant return to Europe with his critically acclaimed show at the Galerie Carré in Paris in 1946 his reputation had begun to grow on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1952 he represented the USA at the Venice Biennale and was awarded the grand prize for sculpture for what was hailed as a “triumphant” exhibition of twenty-three works representing the full range and breadth of his career. Seen as the artistic manifestation of American ingenuity, his new language of art was also recognized for its international appeal too. “Calder’s work articulates a language suited to our century,” an Art Digest reviewer enthused “not merely an American dialect, but a vital new speech involving the fresh use of industrial materials” (A. Calder, quoted by M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 233).
It is with works such as Demi Gondola that Calder’s innovation is truly in evidence. The complex choreography that is enacted by the structure, with its various hanging elements each able to move in various directions, places movement itself at the heart of the work. Other artists of the years before the Second World War had often tried to capture a sense of movement, for instance the Futurists from Italy or even the Cubists, with their dispersed perspectives giving a sense of seeing objects in the round. Similarly, Calder’s contemporaries, the various Action Painters and other Abstract Expressionists working primarily in New York during the late 1940s and 1950s, also incorporated movement into their works, for instance in the lace-like weaving drips of Jackson Pollock’s works. However, Calder went further and rather than represent or crystallize movement in the manner of these new traditions or indeed of the older ones of the statuary created by his forebears, Calder actively involved movement in his works. It is an integral part of the present work, which involves it so actively in all its aspects.
The subject of a major retrospective this fall at Tate Modern in London, Alexander Calder has been described by the exhibition’s curator as “one of the truly ground-breaking artists of the 20th century” (M. Gale, quoted by A. Singh, ‘Tate Modern celebrates the inventor of the mobile,’ Daily Telegraph, July 31, 2014, www.telegraph.co.uk [accessed on September 2, 2015]). The combination of forms and motifs in Demi Gondola showcases Calder’s adroitness at handling not only his chosen materials but also at assembling these seemingly disparate forms into one cohesive whole. Belong to an important series within the artist’s body of work, this work contains within its parameters the very best qualities of Calder’s mobiles; powerful yet graceful and enigmatic yet elegant and with the sophisticated proportions that ensures it always controls the space it inhabits.