Alexander Calder's Constellation of 1943 superbly exemplifies the new form of art the artist developed as a response to the austerity of the final years of World War II. This remarkable sculpture embodies the advice that Calder gave to fellow artists that same year when he encouraged them to embrace simplicity and adopt an adventurous spirit when attacking the unfamiliar or unknown. Part of a series, the present work demonstrates Calder's ingenious use of the pared-down materials of polychrome wood and wire to create a work that is richly allusive and intriguing. One of only about twenty-nine Constellations, Calder created this work at a high point in his career, the year his work was celebrated with a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Calder's work has long been compared to that of the Surrealists, a movement of which he would have been fully aware, both from his experience living in Paris for much of the 1920s and 1930s and from his close friendships with many European artists associated with the movement who then moved to the U.S. in the wake of the war. The biomorphic forms of Constellation strikingly recall the mysterious bone-like figures of one of Tanguy's dreamscapes or the undulating silhouettes of Miró's figures who are often similarly enmeshed in a web of delicate lines. But of all of Calder's Constellations the present work is notable for its references to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, intentionally integrating themes from Brancusi's sculptures, including echoing units from his iconic Endless Column and Fish, which Calder treats playfully by presenting them in diminutive proportions.
Calder's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which opened in
September 1943 and included some Constellations, acknowledged his prominent stature in the art world. At the time, Calder was the youngest artist ever to receive the distinction of a retrospective at the museum and the exhibition effectively positioned Calder as a leader among American modernists. The curator of the MoMA retrospective claimed that "Calder's most original contribution is his unique enlivening of abstract art by humor" (J. J. Sweeney quote in Alexander Calder, New York, 1943, p. 8). Created in the midst of the war, works such as Constellation with Red Knife offered humor and liveliness that was particularly welcome at one of the darkest moments in world history.