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Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
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Property from the Family Collection of Robert and Elodie Osborn
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

Sumac

Details
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Sumac
hanging mobile—sheet metal, wire and paint
36 x 101 ½ x 32 in. (91.4 x 257.8 x 81.2 cm.)
Executed in 1955.
Provenance
Robert and Elodie Osborn, Connecticut, gift of the artist
By descent from the above to the present owner, 1999
Post Lot Text
This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A14461.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Post-War & Contemporary Art

Lot Essay

Alexander Calder’s Sumac is one of the most striking and accomplished of the artist’s iconic mobile sculptures. Measuring over 105 inches across its widest point and containing twenty eight individually suspended elements, its splendid red form captures the radical and innovative nature of these ground-breaking works. Having received critical acclaim for what would become his signature mobile form, in the 1950s Calder began to expand his practice to include monumental outdoor sculpture; the impressive proportions of Sumac reflect this new scope of the artist’s practice, whilst retaining the intricate and skilled assembly of his first mobiles. The present work was acquired directly from Calder by the artist, satirist, writer, and cartoonist Robert Osborn, and has remained in the family collection for the past 60 years. Osborn was among Calder’s closest friends, and the pair shared many happy times together. They were part of a group of revolutionary artists, writers, and architects who lived and worked in rural Connecticut and did much to define the aesthetic and literary style of postwar America.

With its perfectly proportioned elements and vibrant red palette, this is a commanding work that skillfully demonstrates the multifaceted nature of Calder’s sculpture. The Sumac mobiles have become some of the artist’s most celebrated and sought after works, their fiery red elements activated by nature’s invisible forces. Hanging from a single point, a quartet of four wire branches supports the individual elements that are suspended underneath. These components are assembled in increasingly intricate arrangements. The most complex involves a cascade of sixteen vertical elements that begin at its peak with small components little more than an inch in diameter, before increasing in scale as they descend until they conclude with the largest element in the whole composition, which acts as the anchor point. From the vertical plane, Calder moves to the horizonal plane as for the next three sections he arranges the elements on a level axis. This imbues the work with an intoxicating sense of dynamism as they appear to dance when caught in a gust of wind, or in the wake of a close encounter with a passer-by. Each element is individually suspended by arcs of thin metal wire, allowing them to dance independently while still remaining part of a coherent whole. The asymmetrical silhouettes of each element bring to mind Calder’s statement from 1943 that “anything suggestive of symmetry is decidedly undesirable, except possibly where an approximate symmetry is used in a detail to enhance the inequality with the general scheme.” In Sumac each of these is a solid shape, except for one singular element on the lower edge of the composition which is punctured by two voids, permeating a degree of lightness throughout the entire composition. By executing the work in fiery red color, and suspending the individual elements on both the vertical and horizontal plane, Calder instills in Sumac the physical and aesthetic energy that had become the hallmark of his oeuvre.

Sumac was acquired by Robert Osborn directly from Calder soon after it was executed, a legacy of the deep and abiding friendship between the two men. Osborn was a prominent caricaturist, cartoonist, satirist, and writer; known for his sardonic, and often savage wit, he targeted what he saw as America’s bloated elite and societal pretensions. Fellow cartoonist Gary Trudeau—the creator of the world famous Doonesbury comic strip—wrote that “Celebratory of the heroes and unsparing of its rogues, Osborn drew the world as it felt to him, and the world cheered him on. In the heyday of magazine and book illustration, no finer interpreter of mores and manners, no deadlier exposer of chicanery and foolishness, no happier chronicler of genius and grace, was working in American graphic arts” (G. Trudeau, in R. Osborn, Osborn on Osborn, New Haven, 1982, p. 7).

Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Osborn studied at Yale and after graduation traveled to Europe, spending time in Rome and Paris, where he encountered Picasso buying paint, met Brancusi, and introduced himself to W.H. Auden. However, while living and tutoring in Germany he became aware of the dark clouds that were gathering throughout Europe. Along with two companions, Osborn cycled to a stadium where they witnessed Hitler speaking firsthand. After being shocked by the ferocity of the Führer’s heinous beliefs, Osborn committed himself to helping to defeat the rising tide of fascism. At the outbreak of World War II, Osborn enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to an information unit run by the photographer Edward Steichen. Here, Osborn created over 40,000 drawings for Navy training manuals, and in the process created a cartoon character called Dilbert. After the end of the war he continued to draw, and his work appeared in many publications including Harpers, Life, Look, Esquire, Vogue, Time, in addition to becoming a regular contributor to New Republic. Although known primarily as a cartoonist, Osborn thought of himself as primarily a “drawer,” or an “artist with moral convictions” (M. Gussow, “Robert Osborn is Dead at 90: Caricaturist and Satirist,New York Times, December 22nd 1994, online via https://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/22/obituaries/robert-osborn-is-dead-at-90-caricaturist-and-satirist.html [accessed 1/8/2020]). As such, Osborn’s drawings are distinguished by their humor, indignation, motion and satire. Writing in 1982, the artist summed up the spirit of his work saying “I draw what I feel, it is a simple as that, and the stronger the feeling the better the picture. The drawings I like the best seem to come right of my consciousness—full-blown and no change made—and they are, of course, what I am” (R. Osborn, op. cit., inside back flap). In addition to working for many distinguished magazine publications, Osborn also created drawings for several exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (where his wife Elodie worked as the Director of Circulating Exhibitions from 1939 to 1947), and his work remains in the permanent collections of MoMA, along with the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Fueled by their proximity to each other, both Osborn & Calder were part of a remarkable group of artists, architects, and writers who lived and worked in New England. Many worked at practices in New York or Boston, or taught at one of the region’s top universities, and lived part of the year in a fashionable corner of rural Connecticut. In addition to Calder and Osborn, the group included the playwright Arthur Miller, the writer William Styron, and the architect Marcel Breuer. The architect Eliot Noyes (a member of the famous Harvard Five group) was godfather to Osborn’s son Eliot, and the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes became godfather to Osborn’s other son, Nicolas.

Sumac was inspired by the Osborn family home which was designed by Barnes; it’s dynamic red forms a perfect counterbalance to the white, light, serene proportions and careful, clean lines of the International Style building. During the course of their long friendship, Osborn acquired a number of other works by Calder including a large horizontal painting, and a monumental black stabile—titled Triangles—which was located in the grounds of his Connecticut house. In addition to a love of art (and of Henri Matisse and Joan Miró in particular), Osborn and Calder shared a sense of humor and spent many happy hours swapping and sharing stories in the convivial company of their circle of friends. Writing the foreword for the artist’s book Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, Osborn warmly observed that “Life is always increased when one is with the Calders… [He] vastly enjoys the comic spirit and more than most men can turn a wry, clipped joke at any time of night or day—and make it from the simplest means. Even better, he enjoys the wit and humor of others” (R. Osborn, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, New York, 1966, p. 1). Sumac stands as a testament to this extraordinary friendship. The sculpture belongs to a remarkable group of large-scale hanging mobiles which Calder produced during the 1950s. Although nonobjective, Calder’s works were often named after the fact of creation based on a recollection of forms—in this case, the fiery red leaves of the North American Sumac tree. The postwar years were characterized by what Calder described as an ‘aggrandissement’ of his work, spurred on in part by the increasing number of commissions for his large-scale outdoor sculptures that had begun to populate public spaces across Europe. But the excitement he captured in the color and movement of his mobiles never left him, and the elegant proportions of the present work embodies the sense of grace and dynamism contained in the very best examples of Calder’s iconic work.

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