This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A07406.
Spanning over five feet across at its widest point, this remarkable sculpture by Alexander Calder is a supreme example of how the artist revolutionized the nature of his chosen medium at the same time as creating objects of great majesty and beauty. Distinguished by the elegant contours of its fiery red elements, Calder creates in Red Fossil a monumental hanging mobile whose agility and apparent delicateness cleverly defies the monumentality of its creation. Executed during a period when Calder was concentrating mainly on his monumental outdoor sculptures, this work is a return to the heady days of his earlier career and to the form which the artist used to push the definition of abstraction into an uncharted area of artistic endeavor. The result was an entirely new form of artistic expression—one which possessed the exuberance of American abstraction while retaining its roots in the European modernist traditions. This new language defied conventional classification until Marcel Duchamp summed up Calder’s work with a term that soon entered the lexicon of artistic definition—the mobile.
Suspended from a single wire, the eleven aluminum elements are painted in dramatic red paint, arranged like the fossilized skeleton of a long extinct dinosaur. Each component is unique and ranges from the large forked element at the end to the more amorphous shapes that progress from it culminating a red disc. Held in place by a series of cascading wires, these elements are perfectly arranged and balanced so that they align with each other without touching or colliding. This highly sophisticated composition is all the more remarkable given the fact that when these elements interact with their surrounding environment—be it through their confrontation with a gentle breeze, or a gust of wind created by a passing stranger—the work comes alive, moving gracefully as one, like the corps de ballet given life by a master choreographer.
Red Fossil was executed in 1966 during a remarkable period when the artist’s career was becoming increasingly dominated by his monumental stabiles—the large-scale outdoor sculptures that occupied much of his time since the late 1950s. All these colossal pieces were made by commercial fabricators using detailed plans and models by Calder himself. Producing more modestly scaled works, such as the present work, may have offered Calder the chance to return to the more personal-scaled forms with which he had established his successful career.
The striking nature of Red Fossil is due to Calder’s decision to restrict his palette for this work to just one color, red. One of the key factors that distinguished Calder’s work throughout his life was his use of color. But by focusing on one usual eye-catching primary colors, he focuses attention on the purity of the form itself. This device enhances the work’s already dramatic silhouette and coupled with the other, almost minimal aspects of the piece—such as the thin, narrow body and supports—seeks to enhance the appreciation of grace and beauty. Red was a particular favorite of the artist and he would later explain that after movement, color was a secondary element in his compositions: “I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red….I often wish that I’d been a fauve in 1905” (A. Calder, quoted in H. H. Arnason and U. Mulas, Calder, London, 1971, p. 69).
Calder’s revolutionary ideas about sculpture were born out of a visit he paid to the studio of the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian in 1930. Having experienced at first hand Mondrian’s studio environment, Calder was determined to try and introduce similar ideas to his chosen medium. “Why must sculpture be static?” he pondered, “You look at abstraction, sculptured or painted, an entirely exciting arrangement of planes, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect but it is always still. The next step is sculpture in motion” (A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder 1898-1976, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 57). He later recalled how influential this visit had been to his career, “This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract’. So now…I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.” (A. Calder, An Autobiography in Pictures, New York, 1966, p. 113).
While undeniably beautiful, Calder’s mobiles are also rigorous and classical investigations into pure form, pure color and pure composition. Featuring primary colors in tandem with abstracted shapes, Calder’s sculptures pare away any extraneous detail to simply focus on form and its realization in space. Meticulously designed and fabricated, each piece of the mobile must be placed precisely so as to keep the whole of the structure in balance. Grappling with these formal problems of the third dimension in art was not unusual to Calder, however. As an artist, he was continuing the tradition of his father and grandfather, both of whom had been celebrated sculptors. Calder took up their mantle, yet did so in a truly unique way that embraced modernity, be it in his embrace of abstraction, his embrace of movement or his embrace of the found and industrial materials from which he created his graceful mobiles.