Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
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Beyond Boundaries: Avant-Garde Masterworks from a European Collection
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

Little Yellow Panel

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Little Yellow Panel
wall sculpture—wood, sheet metal, wire, string and paint
44 ¾ x 19 ¼ x 19 ¼ in. (113.6 x 48.9 x 48.9 cm.)
Executed in 1936.
Private collection, New York, acquired directly from the artist
Galerie Tarica, Paris
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owners, circa 1970
Alexander Calder, exh. cat., Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, 1948, p. 16 (installation view illustrated).
J. Lipman, ed., What is American in American Art, New York, 1963, pp. 88-89 (illustrated).
Pierre Matisse and His Artists, exh. cat., New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, 2002, p. 174 (installation view illustrated).
Calder, Miró, exh. cat., Riehen, Fondation Beyeler, 2004, pp. 70 and 291, fig. 46 and 116 (drawing illustrated and installation view illustrated).
Calder in Brazil, exh. cat., Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2006, p. 30 (installation view illustrated).
Pollock Matters, exh. cat., Boston, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2007, p. 23, fig. 51 (installation view illustrated).
A. Pierre, Calder: Mouvement et Réalité, Paris, 2009, pp. 214, 248 and 294 (studio view and installation views illustrated).
Tanguy Calder: Between Surrealism and Abstraction, exh. cat., New York, L & M Arts, 2010, p. 153 (installation view illustrated).
Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013, p. 173 (installation view illustrated).
A. S. C. Rower, ed., Calder by Matter, Paris, 2013, pp. 19 and 34-35 (studio view and installation view illustrated).
"Calder in France," Cahiers d'Art, no. 1, 2015, pp. 97-98 (installation views illustrated).
Alexander Calder & Fischli/Weiss, exh. cat., Riehen, Fondation Beyeler, 2016, pp. 192-193 (installation view illustrated).
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Calder: Stabiles & Mobiles, February-March 1937.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions, September 1943-January 1944.
Munich, Haus der Kunst, Elan vital oder Das Auge Der Eros: Kandinsky, Klee, Arp, Miró, Calder, May-August 1994, no. 206, pl. 354 (illustrated in color).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A14616.

An early example of Alexander Calder’s dynamic sculpture, Little Yellow Panel, contains all the innovative hallmarks that would go on to distinguish the artist’s career. Color, movement and form are all represented here, but not in a conventional way—instead Calder imbues them with a new and unexpected vitality. Included in his groundbreaking 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, this work shows the artist breaking free from the monochromatic and static qualities of traditional sculpture to produce one of the artist’s most dramatic early sculptures.

Little Yellow Panel bears witness to Calder’s peripatetic mind as the traditionally opposing qualities of color and monochrome, strict geometry and fluid silhouettes, solids and voids all come together in one evocative work. Anchored by a large yellow wooden panel, the composition is one of continuously shifting shapes and patterns as the golden yellow space becomes a stage upon which Calder’s mobile elements are allowed to perform. Suspended from above, the artist arranges a number of geometric shapes in a way that produces a dramatic ballet of movement and color. A dynamic red square dances in opposition to a more amorphous form, forcing a striking juxtaposition of straight and curved lines, and as the elements move the entire composition shifts, creating an ever-changing dance of enigmatic forms. But the drama does not end there as each side of the elements is painted a different color (the square is black and red, its neighbor is black on one side and white on the other), thus creating a further sense of visual intrigue as the elements move and float in space. In a final flourish, Calder suspends these elements away from the base element, causing them to create a series of dramatic shadows that dance across the wall. As Calder himself once said, “When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises” (A. Calder, Calder, London, 2004, p. 261).

Executed in 1936, this work is a classic example of the artist’s early sculpture. Several years earlier, in 1930, Calder visited the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian, a visit that would lead the artist to revolutionize his oeuvre. Calder wanted to redefine the nature of art, and of sculpture in particular, by breathing movement into its static form. The resulting mobiles were his revolutionary response to these ideas of movement, and his unique ability to produce works that contain both aesthetic and kinetic dynamism marked him out as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. “This one visit gave me a shock that started things,” Calder said of the visit to Mondrian’s studio, “Though I had often heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract.’ So now at thirty-two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract” (A. Calder, An Autobiography in Pictures, New York, 1966, p. 113).

In addition to the sublime sense of movement, Little Yellow Panel also demonstrates Calder’s restrained use of color by accentuating the limited aesthetic of his palette. The black, white, red and yellow elements evoke Mondrian’s aesthetic influence and demonstrates both artists’ astute understanding of the power of color. Calder based his chromatic selection not on ideas of representation or decoration, but as an intrinsic part of the composition, and each color was used to help distinguish the different elements from each other. “I want things to be differentiated” he said. “Black and white are first – then red is next. ...I often wish that I had been a fauve in 1905” (A. Calder, The Artist’s Voice, 1962, p. 41).

A mark of this work’s importance within the artist’s oeuvre is that it was included in Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions, the seminal 1943 exhibition of Calder’s work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Organized by James John Sweeney, along with Marcel Duchamp, the exhibition became an important milestone in the artist’s career as, at the age of 45, he was the youngest person to be afforded a major retrospective at the museum at the time. Previewing the exhibition, Sweeney said “Calder has maintained an independence of the doctrinaire school of abstract art as well as the orthodox surrealism. At the same time the humor in his work is a protest against the false seriousness in art and the self-importance of the advance-guard painter, as well as of the academician. From this viewpoint it is a genial development of certain aspects of the Dada movement” (J. J. Sweeney, quoted by E. A. Jewell, “Calder Sculpture on Display,” New York Times, September 29, 1943, via [accessed 8/7/2017]). The exhibition was both a critical and popular success and had to be extended due to popular demand.

A noteworthy work from the first decade of Calder’s career, Little Yellow Panel gives us a fascinating and prescient foretaste of what was to come. As can be seen here, in addition to color and form, movement was the characteristic which distinguished Calder’s art form from all others. 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. ... They simply are: they are absolutes. In his mobiles, the ‘devil’s share’ is probably greater than in any other human creation. The forces at work are too numerous and complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to be able to foresee all their combinations. For each of them Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it: time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance. Thus the object is always midway between the servility of the statue and the independence of natural events.” (J. Sartre, “The Mobiles of Calder, Alexander Calder,” New York. 1947).

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