‘I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish I’d been a fauve in 1905’ (A. Calder).
With its lyrical circular forms balanced upon a bright red metal support, Black Desk, White Dot is an exquisite example of Alexander Calder’s standing mobiles, or stabiles. Executed in 1960, its delicate formal harmony and breath-taking economy of means bear witness to the intimate works that Calder continued to make during a period increasingly dominated by large-scale commission pieces. Harking back to the artist’s earliest experiments with kinetic sculpture-making during the 1930s, the work encapsulates the fundamental tenets of Calder’s practice, which by the 1960s had evolved into a sophisticated dialogue between colour, form and structural dynamics. Eloquently suspended upon a wire metal support, the black and white spherical forms are subject to the slightest gust of air: subservient to the invisible forces of motion. In Calder’s hands, the traditionally earthbound materials of wire and metal spring to life like enchanted objects, miraculously liberated from their static condition. As Marcel Duchamp once wrote, ‘A light breeze [starts] in motion weights, counter-weights, levers which design in mid-air their unpredictable arabesques and introduce an element of lasting surprise. The symphony is complete when colour and sound join in and call on all our senses to follow the unwritten score. Pure joie de vivre. The art of Calder is the sublimation of a tree in the wind’ (M. Duchamp, quoted in G. Braziller, The Sculpture of the Century, New York 1959, p. 85). The undisputed father of twentieth-century kinetic art, Calder is currently the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern, London.
Having originally trained as an engineer, Calder’s technical grounding enabled him to harness the physical forces of his media to spectacular optical effect. As Black Desk, White Dot demonstrates, the dynamic nature of Calder’s art provided him with an entirely new way of investigating colour: an element that had, in many ways, inspired his decision to become an artist. Calder spent time in Paris early in his career, and later proclaimed ‘I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish I’d been a fauve in 1905’ (A. Calder, Calder, London 2004, p. 89). Like Henri Matisse and André Derain, who pioneered a non-literal approach to chromaticism, Calder rejected the notion of colour as a representational force, relishing instead in the intrinsic resonances and overtones of the bright hues he employed. The deliberate use of pure, fat primary colours – red, yellow and blue, as well as black and white – recalls the neo-plastic aesthetic of Piet Mondrian, whose studio he visited in 1930. Drawn to the coloured cardboard rectangles used for compositional experimentation that adorned the walls of the artist’s studio, Calder was fascinated by the studio’s environment-as-installation and the new abstract language it promised. As Calder later recalled, ‘I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate’ (A. Calder, quoted in Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, New York 1966, p. 113). As his practice developed, Calder’s moving sculptures took on a life of their own: masterpieces of precision engineering, they continue to represent pure and inhibited celebrations of life, movement and freedom.