This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A28403.
In Alexander Calder’s The Plow, monumental sheets of black steel measuring six feet tall are carefully balanced to create a powerful orchestration of soaring forms. Curving upward in graceful arcs, the sculpture demonstrates the paradoxical buoyancy that Calder’s Stabiles routinely display despite their substantial weight. Such feats of engineering became an essential part of Calder’s oeuvre in the 1960s, in which a lifetime of expertise reached its culmination. Proliferating in scale and ever more complex permutations, the Stabiles were his primary focus during this period. Often conceived for display outdoors, they tended to evoke nature in their curving, organic forms, as can be seen in this remarkable and majestic sculpture.
Cutting a dramatic silhouette against the sky, The Plow is composed of three triangular elements that arc delicately outward while leaning amongst each other, making for a dynamic viewing experience that changes depending upon the viewer’s perspective and orientation. Painted in Calder’s preferred hue, a rich, dark black that has become—along with red—one of the Stabiles’ signature colors, the abstracted form of The Plow freely embodies elements of the natural world. Viewed from the side, Calder’s sweeping metal sheets also evoke the great, windswept sails of the giant clipper ships that traversed the world; another view hints at the angular fins of tropical angelfish that swim beneath their wake.
In the early 1960s, Alexander Calder found himself at a turning-point. Having reached the age of sixty, the artist embarked upon a prolonged and vigorous undertaking during which he threw himself into the process of creating ever larger and more complex works. While several small-scale Stabiles, such as Devil Fish (a standing sheet-metal sculpture Calder made in 1937), date to Calder’s pre-war years it wasn’t until after the Second World War that Calder’s Stabiles reached the pinnacle of their artistic creation. The architect Eliot Noyes had approached Calder about enlarging an earlier work from 1940 called The Black Beast, which Calder then re-made in heavy-duty iron. Encouraged by the results, and now possessing the resources to create more, Calder embarked upon a series of large-scale pieces created with the assistance of Etablissements Biémont in Tours, France, which was located nearby his studio in Saché. In the early 1960s, Calder worked closely with these fabricators to create a series of large-scale outdoor standing mobiles. The artist recalled, “I brought eight models in the early Fall of ‘62 and left for America. When I got back to France they had them all done. All eight pieces. They were standing there! The biggest one was six and a half meters high. They pleased me...I could begin to see the possibilities.” (A. Calder, as quoted in R. Osborne, “Calder’s International Monuments,” 1969; reprinted in Ibid., p. 94)
The significance of Calder’s chosen title of The Plow most likely relates to the delicate curve of the humble farm implement developed in 1838 by the American blacksmith John Deere. This simple yet revolutionary design allowed farmers to more swiftly and efficiently plow into the farmland that stretched across the American Midwest, improving upon the cast-iron blade typically used on New England’s rocky soil. Deere’s new design was created of wrought iron or steel, featuring the characteristic shape of a curving parallelogram that was able to slice into the earth with relative ease. Two other large-scale black Stabiles of the 1960s also use the term, though applied to snow: Snow Plow (1963) and Almost Snow Plow (1964/76), which is in the permanent collection of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark.
The Plow is symbolic of the long-standing relationship between the artist and the Rockefeller family, which began with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a founding member of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As the daughter of a senator from Rhode Island, Abby married John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1901 and became the family’s ambassador for 20th century art. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art is now synonymous with the iconic sculpture it features, including Calder’s large-scale standing mobile Sandy’s Butterfly of 1964. In addition, Kykuit, the large Rockefeller Estate in upstate New York—the family home of Nelson A. Rockefeller—features the monumentally-scaled work Large Spiny of 1966 that was commissioned specifically for the gardens. Calder himself especially enjoyed creating such large-scale Stabiles for specific locales, and often traveled to that location to more fully engage with the environment, saying: “if it is made for a particular spot, [it] is more successful.” (A. Calder, as quoted in K. Kuh, “Alexander Calder,” The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, 1962; reprinted in C. Gimenez, Calder: Gravity and Grace, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004, p. 89)
Calder routinely transformed industrial materials into gravity-defying works of art, as he so expertly demonstrates in The Plow. With its effortless elegance and soaring forms that seemingly take flight despite their enormous weight, The Plow demonstrates the ease with which Calder emulated the natural world while maintaining a distinctly abstract visual language. Using the materials of the modern age, Calder radically reinvigorated the genre of sculpture, creating innovative work that continues to delight many decades after its original inception. Early champions of 20th century modern art, the Rockefeller family naturally gravitated toward Calder’s sculpture, with Peggy and David Rockefeller acquiring The Plow the same year it was created.