Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

The Black Rocker

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
The Black Rocker
signed with initials 'CA' (on the white element)
standing mobile--painted sheet metal, rod and wire
49 x 44 in. (124.5 x 111.7 cm.)
Executed in 1945.
Collection of the Artist
Dorothy C. Miller, New York, 1971
Her sale; Christies, New York, 11 November 2003, lot 13
Private collection, Geneva Acquired from the above by the present owner
Bonn, Museum Bochum, Und Es Bewegt Sich Doch...Von Alexander Calder Und Jean Tinguely Bis Zur Zeitgenöessischen "Mobile Kunst" June-September 2006, pp. 8 and 131 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York under application number A03110.

Seemingly in a state of perpetual balance, Calder's tantalizing standing mobile The Black Rocker, is brought to life by the slightest passing breeze, threatening to knock it out of its equilibrium. From its rocking legs, appendages of sinuous wire branch from their single point of origin, magnificently arching; their colorful irregular discs on each end keeping them perfectly poised. Originally from the collection of Dorothy C. Miller, longtime curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and close friend of Calder, this remarkable example from the prime of the artist's career was a gift directly from the artist to Miller. In 1945, the year of the mobile's execution, Calder was at a pivotal point in his career, reexamining his materials and methods and assessing his identity as a sculptor. The Black Rocker is an exemplary example of the artist's return to his primary materials, sheet metal and wire, after brief forays into making cast bronze and wooden pieces. Here, Calder reclaims his signature style, more strongly asserting his artistic voice than ever before.

Dorothy C. Miller was a true champion for modern art in America and single-handedly nurtured the careers of over 120 American artists through her position as curator of American art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, most notably through her Americans series of exhibitions throughout the 1940s and 1950s. While she was a professionally trained curator, Miller possessed a natural intuitiveness for quality especially in new and unexplored talent. In the 1930s when she was first appointed by Alfred H. Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, the majority of modern art was being created in Europe and relatively unknown to American audiences. Miller's tireless efforts and passion to promote these new American artists were an integral aspect of not just national recognition for their homegrown modernists, but also ensured that they gained respect on an international stage. Miller and her husband, Holger Cahill, director of the WPA Federal Art Project, were a vital part of the Greenwich Village art scene in New York, and their circle of friends included, among others, Stuart Davis, Niles Spencer, Walker Evans, Mark Tobey, Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Miller's friendship with Calder began in the early 1940s and in addition to The Black Rocker, which Miller positioned neatly into a corner of her Greenwich Village apartment, Calder gave her a pin with the initials "DM" and the mobile entitled Red Ghost. Along with the rest of her vast collection of American art, these extremely personal gifted works from Calder demonstrate her central role as champion and connoisseur of the new and experimental in American art. Her discerning eye and willingness to take aesthetic risks in her curatorial choices, both for the museum and for her personal collection, enabled many American artists to become known to the American and European audiences in ways that might not have otherwise been possible.

Two years after his seminal New York retrospective in 1943, Calder was experiencing one of the most productive and defining moments of his career. The artist's propensity for simplicity, spontaneity and allowing the structure of his sculpture to shine through was incredibly appealing and viewed as distinctly American at the time. In his introduction for Calder's MoMA retrospective, curator James Johnson Sweeney expounds on Calder's embodiment of America's frontier heritage, stating "that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things" (J. Johnson Sweeney, Alexander Calder, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943, p. 7). Further, Calder's work perfectly married this "frontier character" with his "internationally educated sensibility." This balance between intellectualism and his masterful handling of these rugged materials made him accessible to American audiences and also made him popular in Europe for what they saw as a truly American identity, and was explained by Sweeney: "Calder brought an art expression that was not immediately associable with the work of the great leaders of the prewar years Calder brought something fresh--something characteristically youthful, something blithe, something gay. He was an American" (J. Johnson Sweeney, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 227).

The metal shortages during World War II forced Calder to become more creative with his methods, and truly tested his artistic abilities. A skilled scavenger and incredibly resourceful, Calder worked with spare scrap metal and was forced to work on a smaller scale. The artist also found inspiration in new mediums such as bronze and wood. Calder began to construct what he named "constellations;" amoeba-like polychrome wooden forms interconnected by bits of wire, mimicking the aesthetic of a Joan Mir painting in three dimensions. When he returned to wire and sheet metal in 1945, he was still using smaller and fewer pieces of metal to create his sculptures which took on a new appearance of lightness and airiness that they previously lacked. The Black Rocker's suppleness is perfect proof of this; the sculpture appears to be weightless, extending upward rather than grounded by gravity. While his hanging mobiles from the period, too, have this lightness, this standing mobile appears even more elegant, like a dancer standing on point, poised to take flight.

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