This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A04648.
Artichaut is an iconic sculpture that encompasses both the playful humor and the formalist elements that have defined Alexander Calder's substantial contribution to American art of the 20th Century. At the time of its making in 1974, Calder could count for himself, amongst other accolades, a host of international cities with his monumental sculptures on their public grounds, solo exhibitions in the world's major museums, ambassadorship for American art to the Venice Bienniale, and a generation of artists who would name him as a primary influence. Though stabiles of a massive scale were Calder's primary focus in the year of Artichaut's making, Calder also managed to mount what would be one of his last exhibits of human-scaled work in October 1974 at Perls Gallery. Crags and Critters was a surreal exhibit of a dozen or so stabiles and standing mobiles, and though L'Artichaut was not included in this particular show, it shares the same impulse toward playful abstraction and organic forms.
Turning up from the ground in a rough-hewn spiral, the entirety of Artichaut is made of single piece of painted steel, cut and bent at angles to form the stalk and bud of the implied artichoke plant. Though not all of Calder's works are representational, there is little doubt that Artichaut is a reference to the perennial thistle commonly found in France, where Calder held two residences from 1946 onwards. Like the earliest of his anthropomorphic stabiles (for example, Whale, from 1937) Calder shows his continual indebtedness to the playful, faux-naif abstractions of Jean Miro and the automatist leanings of the Parisian Surrealists. But even at play, and at the apex of his career when seemingly nothing could have dislodged his place in the canon of art history, the composition of Artichaut shows Calder persisting in his self-issued challenge to explore the unique presence of form interacting with space. "Calder has always played his art as he plays his life. But play with Calder is never frivolous" (James Johnson Sweeney, "Alexander Calder: Work and Play," Art in America 51, August 1963, p. 9, cited in Joan Marter, Alexander Calder, Cambridge, 1991, p.251).
From the life-altering moment that he visited the studio of Piet Mondrian in the fall of 1930, Calder would align his metal sculpture work with the concepts of European modernism; incorporating the formalist dictums of the non-representational Russian Constructivists and as well as the creed, issued by the Abstraction-Création collective in Paris, that all art should parallel scientific developments and principles. Earlier in his life, Calder had pursued a mechanical engineering degree at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and looking at the torque of Artichaut, one can see how Calder was drawing on the knowledge issued by a curriculum with the following course descriptions; "discussion of laws governing the plane of motions of particles and of the mass-centers of rigid bodies." (J. Marter, p. 112).
Fusing his early training in science, physics, and mathematics with the new principles of abstraction, Calder would never retire these discussions, defying and defining the laws governing planes vis-a-vis the modernist dictums . The use of a single plane in Artichaut expresses a paradox that engaged the futurist paradox of making a three-dimensional object from a single plane, a direct link to Umberto Boccioni's elegant homage to physics; "Development of a Bottle in Space" of 1912.
Ironic and whimsical, formalist and erudite, all at once, Artichaut, like the works shown in the "Crags and Critters" exhibition, shows Calder at the peak of his career, building upon a lifetime of references and sources. Creating art that is an homage and a mockery of the natural world and its phenomena, as his long-time art dealer Klaus Perls said so wisely of him, "[Calder] had a great capacity for puncturing highfalutin nonsense- often in a short, consciously vulgar way" (Klaus Perls, quoted in Richard Lemon, "The Soaring Art of Alexander Calder," Saturday Evening Post (27 Februrary 1965, p. 31; cited in J. Marter, p.251).