This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A00566.
"When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises" (A. Calder, quoted in J. Lipman, Calder's Universe, London, 1977, p. 261).
Alexander Calder's magnificent Lily of Force is one of the most important works by the artist ever to come to auction. Standing over two metres tall and towering over the viewer with a delicate monumentality, Lily of Force is an historic sculpture which perfectly demonstrates the artist's incredible ability to combine ingenuity, lyricism and a sense of play into perfect form. Created in 1945 at the pivotal moment when the axis of the art world shifted from Europe to the America, Calder was one of the few artists to bridge both continents-acting as a vanguard for American art in Europe, whilst at the same time championing the tradition of European modernism to American audiences about to be thrust into the turmoil of Abstract Expressionism.
This rare and highly complex work has an exalting dynamism: it is a firework-like display of color, with its elements thrusting into the air. Lily of Force is one of a small group of Mobiles which comprise a balancing base-plate through which metal rods soar into the air; from these metal arcs hang a variety of smaller, subsidiary mobiles, one with white fan-like panels, one with rotor-like leaves of red, yellow and white, and the dominant one comprising black elements, the two uppermost evoking foliage. All these flutter as though alive, constantly adjusting themselves according to each tremor or breeze. Underneath the black base hangs another panel, painted blue and trembling like the surface of water. In this way, Lily of Force manages to evoke flowers and water lilies while also serving as a celebration of color and, crucially, of movement.
Dating from the end of the Second World War, Lily of Force has featured in some of the most important lifetime exhibitions of Calder's work, reflecting its importance within his oeuvre. This includes the now-legendary 1946 show held at the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris as well as the large-scale retrospective held for the artist in 1964-65, which travelled from New York to Ontario and ended in Paris. Carré's 1946 show was a remarkable tour de force with which the artist made a grand return to his second home, France, after a number of years living in the United States during the Occupation. Lily of Force was one of a handful of quivering large-scale sculptures that welcomed viewers into the viewing space. Largely comprising a range of hanging and standing Mobiles, the exhibition made a huge impact, as did the essay for the catalogue which was especially written, at the artist's invitation, by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Lily of Force is a sculpture of outstanding complexity and resembles a succession of orreries, each moving independently yet linked. Its range of structures are in effect miniature mobiles, each hanging from the end of long metal stems. One of these miniature mobiles features a range of leaf-like white fins which are arranged to hang in a progression of sails, able to catch any passing breeze; another limb features small plate-like panels of metal while a third, the tallest section, consists of two black lily-like forms as well as two other hanging elements, all in black, these recalling the bulrushes and reeds from Japanese art as well as the highly-personalised visual language of the pictures of Calder's great friend, the Spanish artist Joan Miró. Meanwhile, the branches from which these mobiles hang also penetrate the cavities within the horizontal hanging base-plate, which itself is like a water lily pad. Lily of Force is like a miniature habitat in its own right, comprising various plant-like forms which, created from sheets and rods of metal, straddle both the mechanical and the organic. Lily of Force captures the forms of foliage; its leaves tremble, poetically evocative of nature, while the pad at the bottom undulates in a slower way like water, resulting in a distinctly Calderian idyll, a bucolic yet toy-like answer to the images of water lilies that the Impressionist painter Claude Monet had hoped would inspire a sense of calm and tranquillity in his viewers.
1945 saw a seismic shift in artistic dominance away from Europe towards America as the end of World War II witnessed the United States began to assert its authority as the new center of artistic innovation. This was the year that Clement Greenberg anointed Jackson Pollock as "the strongest painter of his generation" after his exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery and a few months later the art critic for the New Yorker, Robert Coates, first coined the term 'Abstract Expressionism' to described an exhibition of Hans Hofmann's paintings. By this time, Calder was already familiar with much of the European advent-grade as he had been a frequent traveller to the continent since his first trip to Paris in 1926. From his inspirational visit to Mondrian's studio in October 1930 to his close friendship with Joan Miró, he was well versed in the language of European modernism and as an American with such an understanding, he was well placed to act as a bridge between the old world and the new.
The Carré exhibition marked Calder's return to France after a long absence, and was his first exhibition there since the early 1930s. In the meantime, however, his work had been exhibited to great acclaim in the United States, where it was considered a great balm during the dark years of the Second World War. His constant optimism fuelled the works that he showed both in the States and in the Carré exhibition. There was no gloom, no despair, no angst. Instead, a magical world of trembling forms welcomed the many visitors. Numbering among these, Calder remembered the French painter Henri Matisse. Looking at the flashes of color in the gently bobbing panels of the subsidiary mobiles that comprise Lily of Force, one wonders if Calder's show did not influence the Papiers coupés that Matisse was beginning to pioneer during this time. Certainly, Matisse was intrigued by the ability of his own collages to allow him to 'draw' in forms of pure color - he would have been fascinated by the yellow, blue and red leaves of Lily of Force, which appear almost to prefigure the French artist's subsequent near-abstract compositions such as his 1953 Acanthi.
Lily of Force was one of a small group of works from around this period that Calder created with a hanging base-plate. This includes Baby Flat Top, another work that was shown at Louis Carré's 1946 exhibition, as well as the later Bougainvillier and Red Is Dominant. Calder himself, discussing the Carré exhibition, referred to the large works such as Lily of Force using terms that reveal their indebtedness to foliage: "In the show, there were several objects composed of a heavy metal plate, hanging horizontally close to the floor from a davit that came up from the floor through a hole in the plate; above this were some foliage and berries" (A. Calder, quoted in H. Mulas & H.H. Arnason, Calder, London, 1971, p. 44). This relationship to natural precedents can also be seen when Lily of Force is considered as an evolution of the earlier Bayonets Menacing a Flower, which comprised a Stabile-like base from which a mobile counterweighted by a base-plate was balanced.
Compared to Bayonets Menacing a Flower, Lily of Force and Baby Flat Top feature an additional level of complexity and innovation as they are essentially collapsible works. This is a legacy of the Carré exhibition, which took place on the other side of the Atlantic from Calder's Roxbury studio in the immediate Post-War period of deprivations. Because of this backdrop, Lily of Force was created in the United States, yet is very much a product of both of Calder's homes, Roxbury in Connecticut, and France - its structure was defined by the need to be innovative in transporting it across the ocean.
That Franco-American link underpinned the entire exhibition held at Carré's gallery, as it had been the brainchild of another French artist who was similarly in exile in the States during the 1940s, Marcel Duchamp. An old friend of Calder from his Paris years, Duchamp had been the first person to coin the name of the iconic 'mobiles', creating a play on words with the movement that these sculptures feature, and also with the French word for 'motive'. Regarding the idea for the Paris show, Calder recalled that he had created a couple of tiny mobiles for an architect, and that this had launched a series of small works. Duchamp, who had recently created his own mini-monograph Boîte en valise, a portable assemblage of reproductions of his own work produced in a limited number, was entranced by them, as Calder would explain:
"Then in the fall of 1945, Marcel Duchamp said, 'Yes, let's mail these little objects to Carré, in Paris, and have a show.' So a whole race of objects that were collapsible and could be taken to pieces was born. I discovered at the time that a package eighteen inches long and twenty-four inches in circumference was [the maximum size] permissible [for mailing]. Well, I could squeeze an object into a package two inches thick, ten inches wide, and eighteen inches long. Using the diagonal, I could even squeeze in a nineteen-inch element. Some of my plates bolted together and the rods unhooked and collapsed, and I kept mailing these to Carré, who had replied in the affirmative to a cable of Marcel Duchamp. So by June 1946, I had quite a stock of objects in Carré's larder and I took a plane over. There were even some quite large objects, such as the Lily of Force" (A. Calder, quoted in Ibid., p. 44).
In fact, by the time of the Carré exhibition, which was postponed by several months during the course of 1946, Calder had already shown Lily of Force at the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture held the previous year at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Indeed, records appear to show that Lily of Force was created specifically for that show: Juliana Force, the highly energetic and influential director of the Whitney, had hoped to show another Calder, White Lily, but it had already been promised as an exhibit in Detroit. Calder was asked by his dealer, Curt Valentin, to create another sculpture for the Whitney show. This was in part to appease Force, who had been the secretary of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, with whom she had essentially co-founded the museum. These origins in part explain the name of Lily of Force, which pays homage to the Whitney's director whilst also playfully hinting at the pressure that was exerted on the artist to create the work, revealing Calder's humour and his linguistic versatility as well as his hunger for invention.
Calder's love of language may well have influenced his decision to ask Sartre to write the introduction for the 1946 exhibition. Calder himself gave an account of the origins of this request:
"I came back to Paris in October 1946. Jean-Paul Sartre had been in Mexico the previous year and on his way back, during a stay in New York, he had visited a few French artists. André Masson brought him to see us in Roxbury and I saw him again in New York, where he came to my little shop. I gave him a mobile bird made out of Connecticut licence places - there is nothing tougher than these; they look like aluminium, but they hang on forever. During my first visit to Carré, we decided to ask Sartre for a preface, and he agreed" (A. Calder, quoted in Ibid., p. 44).
What resulted was one of the few texts written about Calder which he truly appreciated - interviewed in 1971 by Paul Cummings, he singled it out, explaining that by and large he did not read what was written about him (see interview at www.aaa.si.edu); the importance of the text is reflected by the fact that it was translated into English and republished the following year as the preface for an exhibition held at the Buchholz Gallery. Sartre, the famous existentialist, was intrigued by Calder's work, and his enthusiasm for it was reflected in the text that he wrote, which referred extensively to the gift that he had received while also focusing on the incredible autonomy of the mobiles, which appeared to harness nature while never slavishly imitating it. "A 'mobile,' one might say, is a little private celebration, an object defined by its movement and having no other existence," he said, in words that appear apt to Lily of Force. "It is a flower that fades when it ceases to move, a 'pure play of movement' in the sense that we speak of a pure play of light" (J. Sartre, 'The Mobiles of Calder', Alexander Calder, exh.cat., New York, 1947). Sartre captured the lyricism of Calder's works by focussing on their movement, which was still an incredible novelty during the art of the time. Crucially, Sartre was able to convey a sense of how timeless and indeed magical this innovation was, lyrically capturing a rich sense of the atmosphere conjured by shimmering works such as Lily of Force and its companions and explaining the extent to which this mobility was a factor that bound the sculptures and transcended any representative dimension they might have:
"The 'mobiles,' which are neither wholly alive nor wholly mechanical, and which always eventually return to their original form, may be likened to water grasses in the changing currents, or to the petals of the sensitive plant, or to gossamer caught in an updraft. In short, although 'mobiles' do not seek to imitate anything because they do not 'seek' any end whatever, unless it be to create scales and chords of hitherto unknown movements - they are nevertheless at once lyrical inventions, technical combinations of an almost mathematical quality, and sensitive symbols of Nature, of that profligate Nature which squanders pollen while unloosing a flight of a thousand butterflies; of that inscrutable Nature which refuses to reveal to us whether it is a blind succession of causes and effects, or the timid, hesitant, groping development of an idea' (J. Sartre, Ibid.).
Looking at the installation images that survive of the exhibition held at Carré's gallery, the viewer can imagine the fluttering effect of the many shifting panels assembled there, like so many petals, leaves and feathers. Discussing the exhibition while writing the following year, Nancy Cunard would describe it as, "a grove, a complicated but pleasing grove, half-Ilana of the tropics, half engine-room in some undefined stretch of time... If one had thought of iron as impersonal, without much warmth in its nature, with neither heart nor sex, see what Calder does with it" (N. Cunard, quoted in M. Prather (ed.), Alexander Calder 1898-1976, exh.cat., Washington, New York & London, 1998, p. 229). That sense of the forest-like enclosure would have been augmented by the hanging mobiles, some of them vast constructions despite the postal limitations that had prompted so much of the show, such as S-Shaped Vine, which was two and a half metres tall. While some of these works hung from the ceiling, others were placed directly on the floor to the consternation of Carré himself. This increased the sense that this was an entire environment, an oneiric other dimension filled with metallic plants.