The art of friendship: Alexander Calder’s Sumac

Alexander Calder and the cartoonist Robert Osborn shared not only artistic talent, but a sardonic sense of humour. Sumac, created by Calder for Osborn in 1955, is the embodiment of a friendship that spanned three decades

In the 1950s, in a quiet corner of rural Connecticut, a remarkable group of young artists, designers, architects and writers set up home. Attracted by the idyllic countryside and the chance to escape the hectic life of the city, they did much to define the art and culture of post-war America. Among these important figures were the architect Marcel Breuer, the writer William Styron, and the playwright Arthur Miller.

Alexander Calder and Robert Osborn spent many happy hours together swapping stories. Here they are pictured, with Sumac, at Osborn’s home in Salisbury, Connecticut. Artwork © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Alexander Calder and Robert Osborn spent many happy hours together swapping stories. Here they are pictured, with Sumac, at Osborn’s home in Salisbury, Connecticut. Artwork: © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the centre of the group was the artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and his close friend, the writer, satirist, and cartoonist Robert Osborn (1904-1994). Calder was already critically acclaimed for his innovative mobile sculptures and his large-scale monumental works, while Osborn’s biting commentary and wittily executed cartoons, targeting what he saw as America’s bloated elite, had appeared in a wide range of magazines, including Harper’s, Life, Esquire, Vogue  and Time.

This Robert Osborn cartoon caricatures Alexander Calder as a roaring lion

This Robert Osborn cartoon caricatures Alexander Calder as a roaring lion

It may have been art that sparked the friendship between Osborn and Calder, but the pair also shared a sardonic sense of humour and spent many happy hours swapping stories in the company of friends. 

‘Life is always increased when one is with the Calders,’ observed Osborn. ‘Calder vastly enjoys the comic spirit and more than most men can turn a wry, clipped joke at any time of night or day.’

When Osborn commissioned the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes to build a house for his growing family, he wrote to Calder to see if he might acquire one of the artist’s iconic mobiles to go in it.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Sumac, 1955. Hanging mobile — sheet metal, wire and paint. Estimate $4,500,000-6,500,000. Offered in ONE on 10 July at Christie’s in New York

Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Sumac, 1955. Hanging mobile — sheet metal, wire and paint. Estimate: $4,500,000-6,500,000. Offered in ONE on 10 July at Christie’s in New York

Sumac  subsequently assumed centre-stage in the new home, its dynamic form and colour embodying the qualities that have made these sculptures some of Calder’s most important and sought-after works. It was also a perfect counterbalance to the graceful proportions and careful, clean lines of the International Style building. 

Over the course of the men’s friendship, Osborn acquired a number of other works by Calder, including a large horizontal painting and a monumental black outdoor sculpture, Triangles, 1957, which was installed in the house’s grounds.

The friendship between Calder and Osborn continued for nearly three decades. When both men and their families were in Connecticut they would meet regularly, either at social events (Calder’s parties were legendary affairs), or over dinner and drinks at each other’s houses. At other times, they would correspond by letter, covering envelopes and cards with colourful characters and illustrations.

Calder and Osborn’s correspondence with each other was characterised by colourful doodles. This envelope, mailed in 1952, was sent by Calder to Osborn. Artwork © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Calder and Osborn’s correspondence with each other was characterised by colourful doodles. This envelope, mailed in 1952, was sent by Calder to Osborn. Artwork: © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

So close were the pair that when Calder died in 1976, his family requested that Osborn — along with Arthur Miller, among others — deliver the eulogy at the artist’s memorial service.

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Sumac  is one of Calder’s best works: that he was able to create an object of such grace and elegance from something so solid as metal is clear proof of his artistic vision and individual prowess. But it also embodies the spirit of a remarkable friendship: one that was colourful, dynamic, and possessing of an extraordinary joie de vivre.