This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A11177.
Alexander Calder’s dramatic hanging mobile Bullfight encapsulates all the suspense, drama and choreography of Spain’s traditional corrida del toros. The enduring battle between man and beast is manifested in the constantly shifting elements that he brings together with a degree of precision matched only by the matador’s majestic tussle with the bull. With Calder’s signature skill and imagination, colorful elements swoop and swirl as if hovering in mid-air, gliding past each other with nimble dexterity. Constantly changing as it interacts with its ever changing environment, this large-scale mobile encompasses the artist’s sentiment that “Disparity in form, color, size, weight, motion is what makes a composition” (A. Calder, Autobiography, New York, 1966, p. 114).
With its fiesta-like cavalcade of colorful elements, Bullfight is one of the artist’s most accomplished examples of his iconic mobiles. In bringing together this assembly of elements in vibrant primary colors plus accents of black and white, Calder evokes the energy and spectacle of the bullfight. Although he maintained that his works were resolutely non-referential, the elements here do appear to evoke the spirit of the show itself. The large red element suggests the bullfighter’s cloak which he sweeps, tauntingly, in the face of the bull. The bull itself is represented by the elegant yellow crescent shaped horns that appear in the uppermost portion of the sculpture together the floating black elements where, elsewhere, the blue could be argued to evoke the heat of a Mediterranean sky. Together, the combination of these multi-colored elements combine to recall the drama, energy and theatrical spectacle of the bullring.
Calder maintained his use of color was not based on ideas of decoration, but for him it was an intrinsic part of the composition and each color was used to help distinguish it from other elements. “I want things to be differentiated. Black and white are first – then red is next….I often wish that I’d been a fauve in 1905.” (A. Calder, quoted in Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice, New York, 1962). Here, in the present work, he chooses colors, which play off against each other to create a sense of animation that enlivens the work with a distinct sense of energy. “I have chiefly limited myself to the use of black and white as being the most disparate colors,” Calder proclaimed in 1951. “Red is the color most opposed to both of these—and then, finally, the other primaries. The secondary colors and intermediate shades serve only to confuse and muddle the distinctness and clarity” (A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p.230).
Throughout the course of his life Calder developed a deep affection for Spain, having first visited the country in 1930. Two years later, he returned to visit his close friend Joan Miró in Barcelona and so began a long relationship with Spanish life and culture. In many ways it is understandable that Calder would become enamored with the spectacle of the bullfight, just as he had been with the circus two decades earlier. His animated Calder Cirque, 1926 -31 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) captured the energy and exhilaration of the circus tent and was admired by artists throughout Europe—including Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian and Le Corbusier amongst others—for its delicate sense of movement and sheer joie de vivre. Here, in Bullfight, Calder has captured that same sense of excitement and movement, albeit on a much grander and more sophisticated scale.
Calder’s majestic mobiles can trace their origins back to 1930 and a visit he made to Mondrian’s studio in Paris. He later recalled the impact that visit had on him and his future aesthetic. He described “a white wall, rather high with rectangles of cardboard painted yellow, red, blue, black and a variety of whites, tacked upon it so as to form a fine, big composition” (A. Calder, quoted by M. Prather, ibid., p. 57). Later, in a letter to the American collector A. E. Gallatin, he described suggesting to Mondrian that it “would be fine if they could be made to oscillate in different directions and amplitudes. [Mondrian] did not concur” (Ibid.).
By 1948, Calder’s mobiles—as Marcel Duchamp had dubbed them—became one of the most celebrated parts of his oeuvre. In 1943, he had been granted a large retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and his successful 1946 exhibition at the Galerie Carré in Paris had cemented his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He was fast becoming one of the few artists whose unique language was understood in both Europe and America. Indeed, writing in 1951, the influential critic James Johnson Sweeney said of this important period in the artist’s career: “Calder brought an art expression that was not immediately associable with the work of the great leaders of the prewar years, or even before World War I, as was so commonly true of the most ambitious work visible in Paris exhibitions at the time. Calder brought something fresh—something characteristically youthful, something blithe, something gay. He was an American. He was an American speaking an international language…” (J. J. Sweeney, quoted by M. Prather, ibid., p. 227).