This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A01790.
Measuring over seven feet across at its widest point, Alexander Calder’s monumental Untitled is a rare example of the artist’s wide range of sensory and aesthetic abilities. This work engages a multitude of senses as, in addition to the constellation of striking black forms silhouetted against the sky, Calder also included an acoustic element. As part of the composition he installed a small ‘hammer,’ which, when the circumstances are favorable, moves to strike a neighboring element resulting in an audible chime ringing out across the room. Executed in 1957, this work was produced at the height of the artist’s career when he was working on a number major projects including a large-scale mobile for New York’s main airport, a motorized work for the Brussels Worlds’ Fair and a standing mobile placed outside the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The works completed during this period finally helped to establish his reputation as one of the most innovative artists of his generation.
Suspended by a single wire, the constellation of fourteen elements is supported by an ingenious arrangement of thin wire armatures. Each of these branches ends in an amorphous form—a black metal plate, which is attached to the main body of the work by an clever arrangement, allows each element to move freely when caught by a prevailing gust of wind. In Untitled, this animated quality is further enhanced by one of the elements which acts a musical wind chime, designed to strike its neighbor when pressed into action by the wind. Calder’s celebration of color also comes into play here as the integrity of the monochromatic black color scheme is broken only once, by a vivid red disk located towards the lower section of the sculpture. Isolated amid a sea of black, this component becomes a fiery red burst of color in an otherwise comprehensive adoration of the uniformity of the composition.
Untitled was executed during a pivotal period of the artist’s career when he increasingly concentrated on large-scale works. The devastation caused by the Second World War had forced many civic authorities to rebuild their city centers and they were looking for impressive sculptures to make both an artistic and philosophical statement about the new world order. One such project was a commission from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to design a sculpture for New York’s Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport). During this time Calder worked closely with an architect and project manager named Albert Kennerly who assisted the artist with the practicalities and considerable paperwork needed to complete such a project. “I assisted Mr. Calder not only in procuring the contract with the Port Authority,” Kennerly later wrote, “but also in implementing the various procedures required for the installation such as union problems, structural consideration, making the freedom-of-movement device for suspending the Mobile, and other basic arrangements which only the complication of an international airport in New York City can create” (Letter from Albert Kennerly to Harold Diamond, August 1978). Such was the important nature of the Idlewild project that Kennerly declared: “This was Sandy’s [Calder] first major breakthrough in establishing his world reputation as a great sculptor” (Ibid.). It was during this period that Kennerly asked the artist to produce a sculpture for his own home, the result of which was the present work.
Although Calder produced a large number of works in a variety of media, only a handful of them have an acoustic component. The artist’s first investigations into sound began in the 1920s when he included bells, harmonicas and cymbals into his Cirque Calder, 1931 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). However, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that he first began to incorporate sound into some of his mobile works. Working alone in his studio, Calder was usually surrounded by silence except for the occasional clanging of the mobiles as they bumped into each other while they were suspended from above. One of the most famous of these works was The Gong, which remained high in the rafters until the artist’s death in 1976. Describing his own encounter with the work, Jean-Paul Satre has stated: “I once saw a beater and a gong hanging very high up in his studio. At the slightest draught of air, the beater went after the rotating gong. It would draw back to strike, lash out at the gong and then, like a clumsy hand, miss. And just when you were least expecting it, it would come straight at it and strike it in the middle...” (J. Sartre, “Les Mobiles des Calder,” in Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations, exh. cat., Galerie Louis Carre, Paris, 1946, pp. 6-19, English translation by Chris Turner). The poetic nature of Untitled evokes Sartre’s famous observations on first experiencing Calder’s work in the 1940s. “A Mobile: a little local fiesta; an object defined by its movement and non-existent without it,” Sartre declared, “A flower that withers as soon as it comes to a standstill; a pure stream of movement in the same way as there are pure streams of light” (Ibid.).