This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A11570.
An exquisite portrait, ingeniously composed from long strands of wire, The Golfer (John D. Rockefeller) represents the pinnacle of one of Alexander Calder’s first great mediums. Rising over a foot and half in height from its wooden base, the sculpture depicts the titular sportsman tensed and ready to swing. His head, represented largely by the protrusion of a nose, is clothed in a sun-shielding cap. The torso, rendered by a single string of wire, spirals down like a backbone before meeting at the abdomen and twirling off again into two legs. Elongated arms flow out in curves that simultaneously streamline human anatomy and exaggerate it. Their wide sweep evokes the bagginess of 1920s golfer’s attire. Two hands grasp a slender, simplified club. By providing loops of thin lines, Calder conscripts the very air into an element of his work. The reams of wire are attached to each other by elaborate contortion, granting the piece a purity of material.
The golfer represented is not an anonymous athlete but John D. Rockefeller: the oil magnate and prolific philanthropist who, in the latter decades of his long life, was regarded as the richest man in the world. Rockefeller was a celebrity of the 1920s, whose likeness would be familiar to viewers even when translated to wire. Calder’s other subjects sculpted in this medium included the jazz dancer Josephine Baker, the boxer Panama Al Brown, US president Calvin Coolidge and the artists Joan Míro and Fernard Léger.
Rockefeller was famed for his devotion to golf as both pastime and a way of preserving health. At the time Calder executed this sculpture, Rockefeller would have been reaching the end of his ninth decade, the work’s slight forward stoop perhaps a mark of this advanced age. Although The Golfer was not made specifically for Rockefeller, the sculpture was gifted in 1957 to Nelson A. Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller’s son and Governor of New York, and later Vice-President of the United States. The family became great patrons of the artist and Nelson later commissioned Calder to design his Large Spinney for the family estate Kykuit, in upstate New York. David Rockefeller, the third generation of the family, continued this tradition in 1967 by commissioning a large outdoor sculpture called The Plow from the artist; this work is being offered in the historic Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sales being held at Christie’s New York in April 2018.
Calder’s unprecedented turn to wire sculpture came in 1926; that year he moved to Paris to enroll at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an art school renowned for its student-led, unrestrictive ethos. Here he began work on the Cirque Calder (1926-31), miniature circus sculptures that used figures made of wire, cork and cloth. Calder’s performances with these works endeared him to the Parisian avant-garde, including artists such as Joan Míro, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. Upon witnessing the circus, Calder’s friend and fellow artist Clay Spohn suggested that he attempt to work with wire alone. Calder agreed, and by early 1927 had produced a wire sculpture of Josephine Baker, his first in the genre. These would become the centerpiece of his oeuvre until 1931, when he began to develop the mobiles and stabiles that became his later signature.
In one sense, the wire sculptures are of an extension of Calder’s drawing. “They were now,” wrote the curator James Johnson Sweeney, “three-dimensional forms drawn in space by wire lines—much as if the background paper of a drawing had been cut away leaving only the lines” (J. Johnson Sweeney, Alexander Calder, New York, 1951, pp. 19-20). Calder was a talented draughtsman, especially of line drawings, a style that had been pioneered in the seventeenth century by the baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini during his own period in France. Before moving to Europe, Calder had briefly worked as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette, depicting city scenes and sporting events. “I seemed to have a knack,” he would later recall, “for doing it with a single line” (quoted in B. Zabel, Calder’s Portraits: A New Language, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., 2011, p. 116). Calder’s ability to draw in a mellifluous flow was paralleled in the virtuosic way that he would assemble his wire sculptures in a single session, manipulating his raw, functional matter into expressive, poetic forms with a magician’s deftness.
Yet Calder’s wire works are profoundly sculptural, even down to Calder’s use of a metallic medium. Metal armatures were commonly used by conventional sculptors, such as Calder’s father and grandfather, as support for potentially fragile substances like plaster and clay. By forging statues from wire, Calder frees his practice from these traditional techniques. Some of the wonder imparted by The Golfer stems from the way its tangible structure incarnates Rockefeller so vividly, creating the illusion of intimacy: “[The] suggestion of sculptural mass imparts an authentic likeness, a believability—a sense of firsthand observation and knowledge of the subject” (B. Zabel, ibid., p. 116). Three-dimensionality also underpins the sculpture’s most mesmerizing quality. When viewed from some angles, it becomes a coherent form of wire outline and empty space; from others, it resembles an abstract jumble of wires. Existing at the crossroads of materiality and immateriality, The Golfer (John D. Rockefeller) is both a remarkable portrayal of an American icon and an early masterpiece of Calder’s distinguished career.