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

Spherical Triangle (maquette)

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Spherical Triangle (maquette)
signed with artist's monogram 'CA' (on the largest element)
stabile–painted sheet metal and wire
41 x 14 x 14 in. (104.1 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm.)
Executed in 1938.
Percival Goodman, New York, gift of the artist
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 7 November 1990, lot 102
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 4 May 1993, lot 285
Pace Gallery, New York, 1993
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993
Calder: Gravity and Grace, exh. cat., Fundación del Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, 2003, p. 46 (illustrated).
Alexander Calder: The Modernist, exh. cat., Zurich, Galerie Gmurzynska, 2005, pp. 70 and 77 (illustrated).
A. S. C. Rower, ed., Calder by Matter, Paris, 2013, pp. 49 and 52 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Alexander Calder: Retrospective, 1898-1976, March-December 1998, pp. 146 and 161, no. 111, fig. 33 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler and Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection, Calder/Miró, May 2004-January 2005, p. 196, no. 38 (illustrated in color).
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A09494.

Executed in 1938, Spherical Triangle (maquette) is highly evocative work by Alexander Calder from a pivotal point in his career. For it was during the 1930s that Calder began to abandon the circular and nuclei motifs that had dominated his work up to this point and began to forge a new kind of innovative sculpture that combined his dynamic mobiles with monumental elements made from sheet steel. In the early 1930s, before Spherical Triangle (maquette) was executed, Calder had introduced a completely new sculptural form in which he affixed these sheet metal elements to a static base, thus giving birth to a new genre of work known as the standing mobile. Spherical Triangle (maquette) is a pioneering early example of this new type of work, and a forerunner of what would become one of the most important forms in the artist’s oeuvre.

Suspended between two upright steel rods, a quartet of black ovoid-shaped objects hangs as if dancing in mid-air. These three-sided objects, varying in size and shape are all gently rounded at the corners turning them into the “spherical triangles” referenced in the work’s title. Indeed, when all four elements are viewed together sitting proudly atop of thier triangular base, the overall effect is one final triumphal evocation of the forms that inspired the work’s poetic title.

Each element is placed at the end of a gently arcing metal rod and, in an adept display of Calder’s engineering and technical prowess, weighted to perfection to ensure that it hangs with the perfect degree of poise and elegance. The successful execution of this system of weights is what lies at the heart of Calder’s graceful forms as only the artist’s expertise allows them to seemingly take flight and fly in perfect unison. As with much of Calder’s work during this period, Spherical Triangle (maquette) is executed entirely in black painted steel. Although he had begun to incorporate vivid color into his sculptures in the early 1930s, during the period of the present work he reverted to a monochromatic palette in order to emphasize the dramatic silhouette of this new works.

The biomorphic shapes of Spherical Triangle (maquette) are a clear evolution of the elegant profile of Calder’s first ever stabile enlarged from a maquette, Devil Fish, executed in 1937. While this particular work consisted of static sheets of black painted steel riveted together seemingly to evoke the form a breaching whale, in the present work Calder reintroduces the concept of movement to sit happily alongside these more substantial metal plates. “His motorized panels now took a frank ballet character in several instances,” the writer and curator James John Sweeney said, “…In the Spherical Triangle he carried the relationship of large black sheet-iron forms from the static character of [Devil Fish] into the mobile field” (J.J. Sweeney, “New Ventures: 1937-43” in J. J. Sweeney, Alexander Calder, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, 1951).

Although works such as Spherical Triangle (maquette) embrace the more naturalistic forms that many of his preceding works eschewed, Calder did not set out to imitate nature directly. Indeed, Sweeney was at pains to point out that nature was only the artist’s starting point and that Calder “leans on shapes of the natural world only as a source from which to abstract the elements from” (J.J. Sweeney, quoted by M. Prather, Alexander Calder 1989-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998, p. 135). Indeed, during the particular period when the present work was executed, he had just returned from a year-long trip to Europe where he visited Paris and London. While in Paris he met with his good friend Joan Miró who persuaded him to undertake a commission for the Spanish Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris in which he and Picasso had agreed to show work. Miró and Calder had been great friends for many years, and their shared interests seem evident in this piece as it invokes the anthropomorphic tendencies of the Surrealists. There are parallels between Miro’s paintings and Calder’s sculpture, and Calder seemed to capture some of the same characteristics and spirit of Miro’s “creatures,” thus breathing life into his sculptural renderings.

Although Calder clearly had both strong aesthetic and personal connections to members of the Surrealist movement, perhaps all too aware of the artistic constraints of belonging to a highly definable group, he never fully aligned himself with André Breton and his followers. This deliberate move allowed Calder the freedom to chart his own course and to produce pieces which not only matched theirs but, as in many cases, often foreshadowed their revolutionary efforts. The present work provides evidence not only of this exciting period in the history of art but also of the independent spirit that would characterize Calder’s oeuvre for the next four decades. As the curator Mark Rosenthal identifies, for someone not at the heart of Surrealism, he was clearly an influential part of it, “Separate from the political dramas that permeated the activities of the group, Surrealism offered a fresh group of options for the artists—themes, techniques, outlooks, and points of departure for art practice….Calder and the others were effectively engaged in a kind of dialogue…At times Calder was in the forefront, and at others, he was contributing to what was already ongoing” (M. Rosenthal, “The Surreal Calder: A Natural,” The Surreal Calder, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 2005, p. 18).

Exhibited in the 2004 exhibition Calder Miro organized by the Fondation Beyeler (which later traveled to the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), Spherical Triangle (maquette) is a tangible reminder on how close the two artists had become. Between 1928, when the two met for the first time, and Calder’s death in 1976, the two men were a constant and integral presence in each other’s lives and by the early 1930s, critics—and even Calder’s dealer Pierre Matisse—had begun to notice a symbiotic relationship between the two artists. “The paintings of Miró provided the yet as yet uncategorized works of Calder with a foothold in the realm of modern art. By the same token, the tangibility of Calder’s objects provided access to Miró’s ‘cabalistic’ shapes and colors…Beyond Matisse or Sweeney and the New York art world lies he question whether Calder and Miró recognized or were even seeking to develop a rapport in their work” (E.H. Turner, “Calder and Miró: A New Space for the Imagination,” Calder/Miro, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, 2004, p. 39).
Calder’s innovative forms proved popular with a wide range of artists and avante-garde thinkers. Indeed, Spherical Triangle (maquette) was acquired directly from Calder by the artist’s friend; the architect and urban theorist Percival Goodman. Goodman was an early and dedicated suppoter of Calder and acquired a number of the artist’s early works. He even included some of Calder’s sculptures as part of his planned commission to build the new Smithsonian Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In addition to form, movement was the characteristic which distinguished Calder’s art form from all others and the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in his famous essay on Calder’s work in the 1940s, succinctly summed up the grace, poetry and sheer joy of Calder’s work, “A Mobile: a little local fiesta; an object defined by its movement and non-existent without it; 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. Sometimes Calder amuses himself by imitating a new form. He once gave me an ironwinged bird of paradise. It takes only a little warm air to brush against it as it escapes from the window and, with a little click, the bird smoothes its feathers, rises up, spreads its tail, nods its crested head, rolls and pitches and then, as if responding to an unseen signal, slowly turns right around, its wings outspread. But most of the time he imitates nothing, and I know no art less untruthful than his” (J. Sartre, quoted at [accessed April 13, 2015]).

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