This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A13311.
Belonging to a celebrated body of works which includes such illustrious figures as Josephine Baker, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger and Babe Ruth, Alexander Calder’s wire portrait of the painter John Graham is an early example of the innovative form which the artist adopted and with which he would eventually redefine the genre of sculpture. Described by one scholar as “one of the most radical creations of the twentieth century,” works such as the present lot not only capture the energy and persona of their subject, but also exquisitely display Calder’s mastery of his medium as he molds the utilitarian metal wire into dynamic and insightful sculptures (B. Leal, “Calder the Illustrator,” in J. Simon B. Leal, ed., Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2008, p. 101). Calder gave the sculpture to John Graham as a token of their friendship, and it remained in his collection for a number of years. Graham eventually gave the sculpture to fellow sculptor David Smith in gratitude for his help during a difficult period of his life, and John Graham graced Smith’s living room in Bolton Landing for many years.
John Graham had been a friend of Calder ever since the pair first met in John Sloan’s drawing class at the Art Students League in New York in 1923. During their breaks from class, Calder, Graham, and their friends would venture down to the subway and challenge each other to complete rapid line drawings of their fellow passengers; “I seemed to have a knack for doing it with a single line,” Calder later recalled (A. Calder, quoted in B. Zabel, Calder’s Portraits: A New Language, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2011, p. 116). Over the course of the next decade, these humble line drawings would evolve into the artist’s wire sculptures and occupy a special place in the artist’s oeuvre.
Graham was part of Calder’s close group of friends that also included artists Fernand Léger, Joan Miró and Marcel Duchamp, many of whom Calder memorialized in wire. After both Calder and Graham left New York for France, the pair reconnected in Paris in the late 1920s and for a year or so they were very close. In preparation for his sculpture, Calder produced a number of preparatory sketches of his subject’s face, even including the top of his head. Using these sketches as a guide, he then twisted long lengths of thin wire to depict his subject’s salient features, in John Graham capturing his friend’s unique flattened hair and prominent, angular nose with particular aplomb. On some occasions, he also worked freehand and a Pathé film from 1929 shows Calder producing a similar sculpture while sitting in front of his subject and twisting and turning the metal wire with a rapidity normally associated with drawing. Indeed, curator Jean Lipman noted that “Calder works as quickly in this medium as some other artists make pencil sketches” (J. Lipman, Calder’s Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977, p. 238).
Some of his wire sculptures were mounted on a wooden or metal pedestal and intended to be viewed in the fashion of more traditional sculpture. But many works, such as John Graham, were suspended by a wire, often tilted slightly forward, to create a more dynamic approach to the medium. “The expressive configurations,” curator Barbara Zabel writes, “of Calder’s wire portraits…change from moment to moment, as the viewer or the sculpture moves. In this way each portrait seems to come to life, suggesting facial expressions in flux—indeed, a life and identity in flux. This notion of the fluidity of identity meshes with new ideas emerging in the realms of psychology, physics and literature in the early years of the twentieth century, which also postulate the impossibility of isolating a monolithic, unitary self” (B. Zabel, op. cit., p. 3).
Initially at least, it was thought that these works were done spontaneously, yet many preliminary sketches related to these works have been subsequently discovered, suggesting that they were more considered than was first thought. Indeed, although he was a trained mechanical engineer, Calder was also an accomplished draughtsman and his first job was illustrating sporting events and city scenes for the National Police Gazette, showing themes that he would go on to expand in his wire works. In order to further refine his drawing skills, he enrolled in classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris in 1926 which refused to teach the strict academic style of painting of the École des Beaux-Arts and instead insisted students be allowed to develop their own unique styles. It was here that Calder became enamored of the work the 17th century artist Charles Le Brun who became famous for his method of drawing that combined physiognomy and geometry. Calder understood that this method accentuated the enlargement and the distortion of the facial features and would allow him to produce expressive heads in marked relief, despite their resonating forms. As Zabel, the curator of a retrospective exhibition of Calder’s wire sculptures at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., explained of Graham’s portrait, “The finished portrait, like all the wire likenesses, is conventional insofar as it is descriptive of the givens of Graham’s physiognomy; indeed, it represents the familiar structure of Graham’s face and skull. The viewer is thus able to extrapolate the surface—and the mass—of the head of its openness, the portrait bust implies a volume. This 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).
Calder was keen to depart from conventional notions of sculpture. “The important thing for me is to avoid an impression of mud piled up on the ground,” Calder once wrote, and it is with works such as John Graham that this intention becomes reality (A. Calder, quoted in ibid., p. 1). Freed from the shackles of sculptural tradition, out of a length of simple steel wire Calder’s dexterous hands conjures up a likeness that goes beyond cliché to offer an intimate and sensitive portrait of an artist and friend whose spirit, in this work at least, lives on.