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

Little Black

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Little Black
incised with the artist's monogram and date 'CA 56' (on the largest element)
hanging mobile—sheet metal, wire and paint 
18 ¾ x 40 x 12 ¾ in. (47.6 x 101.6 x 32.4 cm.)
Executed in 1956.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired directly from the artist
Private collection, New York, 1960
PaceWildenstein, New York
Peter and Ruth Kaufmann, New York, 1996
By descent from the above to the present owner
A. Glimcher and M. Glimcher, Adventures in Art: 40 Years at Pace, Milan, 2001, p. 519 (installation view illustrated).
New York, Perls Galleries, Calder, February-March 1956.
Beverly Hills and New York, PaceWildenstein, Alexander Calder: The 50s, November 1995-February 1996, pp. 48-49 (illustrated).
Further details
This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A13200.

Brought to you by

Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Capturing both the dynamism and simplicity of movement and abstraction, Alexander Calder’s Little Black exemplifies his ability to craft visual harmony amidst abstraction. A hovering mobile of sheet metal and wire, this mobile is a rhythmic composition that showcases Calder’s aptitude to masterfully manipulate shape, color, and three-dimensional space. The mobile embodies the balance between abstraction and unity that is characteristic of Calder’s legacy of redefining sculpture for the rest of art history.
Little Black is an investigation into pure color, form, and composition. Spanning almost four feet, Calder’s graceful mobile is delicately suspended by a series of sinuous superstructures. With ten biomorphic shapes that seem to cascade towards one side, the mobile gently turns and drifts in response to human activation or air currents. The organic forms exist in conversation with each other, lending visual and rhythmic interest as an abstract painting in sculptural form. Together, the biomorphic forms and network of wire structures achieve both a balance and a tension, creating a lyricism of dialogue. The mobile is ever-shifting and transforming with each subtle movement.
Little Black utilizes Calder’s signature materials to demonstrate the meticulous work that went into creating his art. Painted a dark, piercing black, the mobile’s monochrome palate works in tandem with curvilinear, abstracted shapes to illustrate form and its realization in space. The lines and contours conjured in the mobile evoke the act of drawing in mid-air, adding dimensionality and depth. This delicate balance of color and form works to push against a notion of sculpture as a heavy-handed medium. Rather, Calder’s mobile illustrates the medium’s potential dynamism and elasticity.
In this particular work, color, form, and composition align to resemble the regal and powerful wingspan of a large bird. Though dark and monotone in color, the gentility of the wire-like structures gives the mobile a unique aerial quality that sets his organic forms free in space. As a hanging mobile, Little Black achieves a nuanced harmony in the balanced tension of the sculpture’s various elements.
Calder’s investigations into the medium created an entirely new form of sculpture, one defined by motion. Calder applied the ideology of Modernist abstraction to free sculpture from its traditional emphasis on heavy forms weighed down by gravity. He breathed a sense of mobility, dynamism, and motion into sculpture, in turn redefining the nature of the medium for the rest of the century.
Calder’s career developed through the 20th century, which saw a dramatic upheaval in the ways of experiencing and understanding art. Calder responded to such changes by revolutionizing conceptions of sculpture as a medium. Calder’s practice paved the way for younger, mid-20th century artists such as Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns to move beyond traditional methods and materials and break through previous boundaries of the art world.
Though born into a family of Philadelphia-based artists, Calder initially pursued a career in physics and engineering. He worked as a hydraulic engineer before abandoning mechanics to enroll in the Art Students League where he studied under the tutelage of George Luks and John Sloan. He later studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére in Paris where he met Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian, who together would inform the transformation of Calder’s sculptural practice. He later studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére in Paris where he met Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian, who together would inform the transformation of Calder’s sculptural practice. Calder’s art engages movement, spatial boundaries, and elements of chance: “The lyricism of the works…has everything to do with Calder’s genius for turning to art’s advantage an investigation of the nature of the world generally believed to be the purview of physics, a way of seeing inaugurated not by artists but by the primary texts of Euclid and Isaac Newton. Calder, although not a scientist in any traditional sense, was moved by a desire, common among early 20th century thinkers, to see the poetry of everyday life as shaped by heretofore invisible principles and laws” (J. Perl, “Sensibility and Science,” in Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013, p. 41).
Calder’s process was intuitive yet direct. In applying science and mathematics towards a more poetic realm of thought, Calder was able to grasp at an inextricable relationship between immediate appearances and the hidden forces that shape our world. This ability to straddle the hard and soft creates a poetic rhythm that pushes against any one notion of representation. Calder’s Little Black expresses the universal language of Modern abstraction, interacting with its environment and its viewer to establish its own harmony in the immediate universe. As Calder himself 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).
Emblematic of Calder’s signature style, Little Black is a work that captures the energy of motion, movement, and unity amidst abstraction. Little Black exemplifies Calder’s oeuvre and his greater imprint on art history at large. With an ever-changing quality, this mobile has a longevity that embodies a transcendence of medium to allow for new ways of creating, experiencing, and appreciating art.

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Morning Session

View All
View All