This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A08628.
Executed in 1941, Leaves is a remarkable and exceptionally poetic example of Alexander Calder’s early mobiles. Couched between the late 1930s and the end of World War II, Leaves was created during a unique period in which Calder’s creative focus shifted away from nuclei and spheres of the early part of the decade and turned towards the vast space of the American rural landscape. In the present work, Calder has applied his intuitive engineering capabilities to create a seemingly weightless and precisely simplified form. Hovering above the viewer, a delicate array of black painted metal sheets is bound together by thin, almost disappearing, metal wires. While exhibiting Calder’s masterful manipulation of metal, Leaves ultimately suggests that, for Calder, it is not the mechanics that underlie the work but the natural universe itself. When asked what has influenced him more, nature or modern machinery, Calder replied assertively “Nature. I haven’t really touched machinery except for a few elementary mechanisms like levers and balances. You see nature and then you try to emulate it…the basis of everything for me is the universe. The simplest forms in the universe are the sphere and the circle. I represent them by disks and then I vary them…” (A. Calder and K. Kuh,“Alexander Calder,” The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York and Evanston, 1962, p. 38).
Energy, for Calder, is the basis for his abstraction, and therefore the basis for his art. Leaves underscores the artist’s ability to recreate the rhythm of nature and ultimately the rhythm of life itself through emulating the natural world and abstracting the elements of its form. With this mobile, nature is abstracted and reduced to a single poetic moment of both riotous activity and sublime tranquility. Calder restricts the color palette of Leaves to black alone, highlighting the lyrical simplicity of form and distilling nature to its most basic elements. Triangular shards of metal are allowed to dance freely, altering their shape in front of the viewer’s gaze; metal wires are transformed into veins and stems, and each shard of metal becomes a quivering leaf upon a branch. Although the large-scale work hangs high above the viewer, one feels as if they could blow upon the mobile and alter its course, like a puff of wind that tosses the arms of a tree. Biomorphic forms cascade and twirl languorously, each clank of metal reminiscent of the rustling of autumnal leaves. Shapes here combine and recombine in shifting, yet balanced relationships that provide a visual equivalent to the harmonious but unpredictable activity of nature. The mobile is alive. Leaves can ultimately be viewed as one of Calder’s most active and eloquent mobiles. Not restricted to a horizontal plane, the sculpture pulsates in space. Its branches stretch and twist, guided solely by air. Forms collapse and reconfigure. As in the natural world one can never look upon the same moment twice. In the blink of an eye the mobile as subtly altered, has transformed. The rhythm of life is before the viewer in an abstract vision.
Leaves was created during a unique period in his life that can be described as both tumultuous and tranquil. With the Second World War on the horizon, Calder returned to the US in 1933. He settled in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he and his wife Louisa would raise their family. An idiosyncratic period for an artist who at the beginning of his career worked extensively in Europe, and whose renown was developed mainly within a European context, Leaves exemplifies the artist’s creative output during these years and embodies a distinctly American sensibility. Working in a gigantic barn of a studio, Calder was inspired largely by the natural landscape of Connecticut. One can imagine Calder observing the movement and shape of the tree line outside his large studio window, abstracting and manipulating the forms in his mind. Unadorned and effortlessly expressive Leaves can be viewed as a meditation on the abstraction of nature, and on the nature of life itself.