This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application
Three small objects comprised of gracefully joined curvilinear forms, suggest three-dimensional contrapposto in space—the tensions suspended between straight and round, silhouette and coloration, stasis and movement, calm and activity—all visible in the wire rods and delicate shapes. Both kinetic and visual associations link this work to Calder’s personal cosmology—his portraits of friends in his “drawn” wire sculpture, his “spatial calligraphy in wire”—and his literal reference to the dynamic forces of equilibrium present in the universe—in his abstract mobiles. (J. J. Sweeney, Mobiles by Alexander Calder, New York, 1934, n.p.) The title, The New Ritou, is a portrait of sorts itself. The work is a further elaboration of an earlier work, Ritou, 1936—a mobile assemblage in wood and metal, named for his friend Ritou Bac, the wife of the modernist architect Oscar Nitzschke, who, with Le Corbusier, designed the United Nations Headquarters. As Calder would in his early wire portraits, here he fashioned an approximation of memory, elaborating through movement the earlier static portraitures in wire. The New Ritou is, literally, an “object behind other objects,” a face, a personality released into space.
This work also translates into plastic expression Calder’s evocation of constellations, the invisible gravitational forces that direct bodily planets. From there, the analogy stretched to the rhythms of physical action in counterpoint with natural forces. “At first [my] objects were static, seeking to give a sense of cosmic relationship. Then . . . I introduced flexibility, so that the relationships would be more general. From that I went to the use of motion for its contrapuntal value, as in good choreography” (A. Calder, 1943, 6, www.calder.org). The notion of choreography is apt. While in Paris, Calder mixed with surrealists and constructivists (who were engaged in creating stage sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo), Picasso, Leon Bakst, and Natalia Goncharova, among them. Calder himself designed moving sets for more than a dozen theatre productions for Martha Graham’s multi-part work, Horizons (1936). That year Calder also created decor for Erik Satie’s musical drama Socrates (1936), in which abstract imagery mechanically set in motion creates its own musical drama of the cosmos while symbolically illustrating events in the narration, for example, the death of Socrates, where a large white rectangular form turns from white to black.
As the story goes, it was Marcel Duchamp who named Calder’s motorized kinetic objects “mobiles” when he visited the artist’s studio in the early 1930s. Calder—an expatriate in Paris—had befriended not only Duchamp, but also the coterie of Surrealists around André Breton, among them André Masson, Hans Arp, and Joan Miró, with whom Calder would maintain a lifelong friendship. But it was the meeting with Piet Mondrian in 1930, whose studio environment impressed Calder, that incited his shift to abstraction. Calder would eventually tie the notion of abstraction to a cosmology of forms. “The basis of everything for me is the universe. The simplest forms in the universe are the sphere and the circle. I represent them by disks and then I vary them. My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement” (A. Calder and K. Kuh, “Alexander Calder,” The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, www.calder.org). Calder added the elegance of constructed biomorphic curvilinear shapes to his earlier work and sense of play with figuration, which André Masson had alluded to in the final line of his poem for Calder—“And they play between your fingers, Calder, my friend” (A. Masson, in Alexander Calder, exh. cat., Buchholz Gallery, New York, 1949, n.p.). Throughout this period in the early twentieth century, movement was an underlying thematic, whether in works by the Italian Futurists who painted and sculpted expressions of speed or in the kinetic sculptures by the Russian constructivists Nam Gabo, Alexander Rodchenko or the Hungarian László Maholy-Nagy.
Yet Calder was able to infuse lightness and dexterity, entirely lacking in the constructivists fascination with light, time, and technology, to the notion of naturally moving parts, activated not by motorized mechanisms, but rather by the natural flow of breath or moving air. In the early 1930s, he created his first suspended forms using metal rods and transparent wires from which were extended a variety of biomorphic and geometric objects and flat metal planes extending horizontally in space, much like birds’ wings or leaves of trees. Calder’s engineering training harnessed the laws of equilibrium in his moving constructions and his experience with the surrealists released a certain automatism that produced both effortless and spontaneous motion. To watch Calder activate his own pieces, is to watch a performer at ease in his own body: the hands float through space, gracefully following through the action as a percussionist might who wields his beaters or conductor whose arm movements elicit sounds from instrumentalists. Calder is as much at one with his objects as the viewer will become. He conflated sculpture and kinetic activity, first by removing the pedestal and levitating the object and then by bringing the viewer into participatory partnership with it.
One of Calder’s most compelling statements about art appeared in the journal Abstraction-Création, in 1932. He elucidates the idea that meaning in art comes from its kinetic relationship to other elements: “Spaces, volumes, suggested by the smallest means in contrast to their mass, or even including them, juxtaposed, pierced by vectors, crossed by speeds” (A. Calder, Abstraction-Création, Art Non Figuratif, no. 1, (1932), 6, www.calder.org). The New Ritou is as much an illustration of these thoughts as a summation of the artist’s production a decade later. Its elements include a form based on one of Calder’s most delightful animations, the elephant, which he fashioned in wire and metal, in various versions, either as a stabile sculpture both small and large or as a form in motion. The resemblance to Calder’s Devil Fish, too, is apparent. The colors are distinct—“disparate” as Calder would say. Two intersecting flat spherical forms in red and blue catch the eye, their contours tending toward conjoined ellipsis. Balancing these two elements is a splayed dissection of a form common to the biomorphism found in the art of Calder’s fellow artists, Yves Tanguy and Jean Arp. In a series of his own “constellations” created around 1943, Calder set multiple three-dimensional wooden objects into motion or fixed them on the ends of wires. With strength and lightness in equal measure, Calder’s delicate equilibrium sets up a lively sense of interplay among the shifting abstract shapes.
In The New Ritou, a beautifully balanced and graceful work, one sees a recapitulation of earlier themes—“objects behind other objects”—as well as an opening onto further seemingly endless invention. A few years earlier, Calder had asked, “Why not plastic forms in motion?” The New Ritou illustrates, in part, the artist’s answer: “Not a simple translatory or rotary motion but several motions of different types, speeds and amplitudes composing to make a resultant whole. Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motion…. The esthetic value of these objects cannot be arrived at by reasoning. Familiarization is necessary” (A. Calder, Modern Painting and Sculpture, exh. cat., Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, 1933, pp. 2-3).