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Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
hanging mobile--painted sheet metal and wire
24 x 75 x 50 in. (70 x 190.5 x 127 cm.)
Executed circa 1948.
Private Collection, New York, gift of the artist

Lot Essay

This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under the application number A22189.

"Another thing - the lights are all gas - and at times very profuse - and they are very white, and mostly the buildings are very black, so that one gets some fine black and white color effects."
Alexander Calder's letter to his sister Margaret Calder Hayes and brother-in-law Kenneth Hayes on November 11, 1930

Calder wrote the above description of the Parisian nightscape in a letter to his sister and her family during one of his stays in the French capital. The city held special meaning for the Calder family; his father, mother, and grandfather, all artists, had traveled or studied in Paris, and his sister had been born there. While the artist was thoroughly American, his development as an artist, especially encounters with modern abstraction, occurred in Paris. He made Untitled during the fertile period marked by extraordinary inventive iterations on the mobile that followed Calder's seminal solo exhibition at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris in 1946. During World War II, the artist had spent the period in the United States creating sculpture-objects with various materials and found objects such as bits of colored glass, carved wood, and stone, due to the shortage of metal. Once the war was over, Calder began to cut shapes from sheet metal into evocative forms and would hand-paint them in his characteristically pure hues of black, red, blue, and white. These hanging mobiles seem to defy gravity; but more importantly, the works simultaneously revealed complex arrangement of form and the simplicity of movement. The present work consists of uniform white discs of varying sizes suspended aloft by slender wires - the overall effect is similar to that of twinkling lights. As the elements rotate, shimmer, and circulate through the air, they play with the viewer's sense of scale and perspective as they draw different configurations in space. Calder's lively mobiles are highly suggestive of all things organic and alive (hence the title); they too move freely and exist in this space. Another being does not dictate or diagram their movements, but they follow their own will.

Untitled was owned by Murdock Pemberton, who called his mobile White Birds in Flight. The first art critic of The New Yorker, he was an early champion of Calder. In a 1926 review of an exhibition at Artists Gallery, New York, which included an oil painting by the artist, Pemberton remarked, "A. Calder, too, we think is a good bet." Pemberton was one of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, directors, critics, and actors who met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street starting in June 1919, and these occasions lasted for almost a decade thereafter. According to Pemberton, the Round Table began as a luncheon which Pemberton himself had a hand in organizing, for the esteemed New York Times theater critic Alexander Woollcott. Soon the lunch became a regular event with luminary figures from the literary and theatrical worlds such as Robert Benchley, Harold Ross, George S. Kaufman, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker joining in to make a lively mix; these conversations often ended up in publications or professional collaborations of some sort. Soon their witticisms, bon-mots, and gossip became disseminated in magazine articles, plays, and songs and the Algonquin Round Table soon gained notoriety.

The New Yorker, whose office was conveniently located on the second floor of the Algonquin Hotel, covered a host of topics that influenced contemporary American culture between the two World Wars. The writers and editors of the hallowed magazine were indeed tastemakers. Pemberton began writing for The New Yorker in February 1925 when the magazine started, and stayed for seven years. While he wrote exhibition reviews and artist profiles, Pemberton also noted the average American's indifference to art and offered ways to remedy the situation. He called it his "crusade." He sought to elevate the status of the American artist by comparing it to the status of a French artist and describing how French society commends an artist for his vocation. Pemberton found the contemporary art world in America to be too highbrow and insular to address the common person. In Calder's work, he sensed the artist's democratizing touch. He appreciated Calder's ingenuity and lack of pretension; the opaque abstractions of modern art were made accessible by Calder's enterprise of making works that relate the world of nature to man. And in the artist's universe of objects, that relationship is harmonious and joyful.

In 1929 Murdock Pemberton wrote one of the earliest reviews of Calder's Circus sculptures, "You can't buy tickets to it, but people who have seen it say it's worth getting a bid to a private show...He keeps seventy performers doing incredible things with their wire joints and felt bodies...Jean Cocteau, who is easily bored, saw the show in Paris at the studio of Foujita, the Japanese painter, and was enthusiastic" (M. Pemberton, "Calder's Circus", The New Yorker, December 7, 1929, p. 24). Positive reviews of this sort were an important impetus to Calder's early career and proved to be the foundation for a lasting friendship between the two men and their families.

One year later, in 1949, after Calder executed the present work, he created International Mobile in which he also painted the elements wholly white. It was the largest work Calder had made to date, with a wingspan of 22 feet. He entered it in the Third International Exhibition of Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it soon became the focus of the exhibition. The work later entered the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The poetry of Untitled had been transformed into public grandeur.

A book about Murdock Pemberton's life as an art critic, together with a complete collection of his writings, will be published in 2011.

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