‘In 1954 I received a letter form a young Indian woman’, Alexander Calder recalled in his 1966 memoirs. ‘She was Gira Sarabhai, youngest of eight children of a large wealthy family in Ahmedabad, which is somewhere halfway between Bombay and Delhi. She offered Louisa and me a trip to India, if I’d consent to make some objects for her when there. I immediately replied yes.’
The excited artist went on to announce that he would travel with only his pliers, then sent a miniature mobile called Untitled to Sarabhai as a carte de visite ahead of his arrival.
Alexander Calder with Gira Sarabhai, the young architect who invited Calder and his wife Louisa to stay with her family. Photo: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York. © 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS London
For Calder, who two years previously had won the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, it was a golden opportunity.
Gira, herself an architect, was from a prosperous family known for playing a pivotal role in India’s industrial development — as well as its contributions to the country’s independence movement. Along with her brother Gautam she founded the Calico Textile Museum — arguably the best of its kind in the world — as well as the city’s celebrated National Institute of Design, which shaped the cultural landscape of Ahmedabad during the 1950s.
As dedicated patrons of the arts, Gira and Gautam had already welcomed leading figures of the European and American avant-garde to their Indian home by the time Calder accepted his invitation — among them were Isamu Noguchi, Le Corbusier and John Cage. Others would also follow after Calder, including Robert Rauschenberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Charles and Ray Eames.
Alexander and Louisa Calder spent three months in India, seeing the sights as well as working. Photo: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York. © 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS London
On the 12 January 1955 Calder and his wife landed in Bombay. After a day of sightseeing and shopping for metal and wire, they boarded the 12-hour train to Ahmedabad, arriving at the Sarabhai estate early the following morning.
Calder worked for an intensive three weeks at the 20-acre compound, apart from the occasional visit to a local blacksmiths for supplies and a trip to Udaipur for four days.
Although the Sarabhais set up a studio for Calder, he preferred to spend time in their secluded gardens, where he could draw inspiration from the exotic animals and tropical plants. Brandishing his trusty pliers, the artist worked spontaneously with only wire, sheet metal and paint on an outdoor bench. Once engineered, his kinetic sculptures were then hung from the surrounding trees.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Claw, 1955. Hanging mobile: sheet metal, wire and paint. 47 x 93 x 56 in (119.4 x 236.2 x 142.2 cm). Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 13 November 2019 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS London
By the time he left to explore the rest of India and Nepal, Calder had produced nine sculptures, including Claw, which is to be offered by Christie’s on 13 November in New York. In spite of the fact that it is entirely black, the sculpture is said to elicit the unseen forces of nature — the gently swaying motion of stalks, leaves and petals in a breeze.
It is also a work of great technical innovation. Several of the biomorphic shapes which dangle on the ends of Claw’s cantilevered arms have holes — areas of negative space which point to the artist’s fascination with the work’s equilibrium.
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After the Calders left India they wrote to Gira immediately, thanking her for the stay. They remained lifelong friends with the family, exchanging letters until Calder’s death in 1976. Gautam and his daughter even visited the artist in his studio in Paris.
In 2016 Christie’s sold a group of Calder sculptures from the Sarabhai family’s collection, including Untitled (known as Blue Dot), which was purchased by Gira from Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1954 and kept in her garden. Also in the sale were some of the other nine works Calder made in India, including Franji Pani, a self-supporting white-tipped mobile named after the tropical flowering tree, and Sumac 17, which was inspired by the artist’s visit to the Ahmedabad kite-flying festival. The latter realised $5,765,000.
Claw will be on view 1-13 November at Christie’s in New York, ahead of its sale on 13 November in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction.