‘To most people who look at a mobile... it’s not more than a series of flat objects that move. To a few, though, it may be poetry. I feel there’s a greater scope for the imagination in work that can’t be pinpointed to any specific emotion. That is the limitation of representational sculpture. You’re often enclosed by the emotion, stopped’
(A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 282-283).
Executed circa 1955, Pequeña Cara Roja (Little Red Face) is a monumental sculpture by the undisputed master of twentieth-century kinetic art, Alexander Calder. Comprised of eleven slender red, blue and black biomorphic forms suspended delicately in the air, this is a quintessential example of the revolutionary sculptures that Calder has long been admired for. With a strikingly large span of nearly five feet, Pequeña Cara Roja demonstrates the way in which Calder’s sculptures artfully juxtapose simplicity, grace and technical dexterity. Sometimes motionless, sometimes twirling slowly around each other in an elegant dance, each element of the sculpture is able to move freely on its delicate wire attachment. Each hand-shaped component is unique in shape – some narrow to a point, some are pierced, while others form a soft triangle – but they unite along interconnected, willowy wires to form a harmonious flock that moves with the flow of air.
Pequeña Cara Roja dates from a time when Calder was approaching the pinnacle of his career, and when his sculptures were becoming increasingly sought after. Two years previously he had represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and won the Grand Prize for sculpture. Work from this period is among his most celebrated, and is housed in museum collections across the world. For example, Red Lily Pads, 1956, is in the collection of the Guggenheim, while Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, c.1953 is in permanent collection of the Tate Gallery in London.
It was an adventurous time for Calder, who in 1954-55 travelled to the Middle East, India, and South America, as well as making regular trips to Paris. It was also the year in which the American-born artist moved to the south of France. Around this time his work became increasingly innovative, and he exhibited sound mobiles – ‘gongs’, and ‘towers’ - which were constructions attached to the wall – and began to turn his attention to works executed on a grand scale. In these years he was also earning major commissions from across the world, including in 1957, .125, a mobile for the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; the next year, Spirale, a major commission for U.N.E.S.C.O. in Paris; and The Whirling Ear for American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Worlds’ Fair.
In the early 1950s the New York school of abstract expressionist painters was in its ascendancy, extolling emotive, personalised and transcendent modernism. Calder, who had spent much of his early career on the continent, distanced himself from them physically and theoretically. He preferred the company of émigré artists such as Yves Tanguy, to fellow Americans, like Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock. Calder freed his work from the traditional confines of oil on canvas, creating carefully balanced compositions that bear a resemblance to European modernism and surrealist painters. In their forms, colours and motifs, they especially resonate with Jean Arp and Kurt Schwitters, as well as the purity, reductive abstraction and cool spaces found in the work of Piet Mondrian.
Calder’s European sensibilities and connections were honed in the 1920s, when, after a period of living in New York and studying at the Art Students League, he went to live in Paris. Soon the artistic, bohemian crowd was in thrall to the wire sculptures he made to resemble animals and people, especially a work he began in 1926, Cirque Calder. This was a complex work, carefully engineered to replicate some of the miracles of circus acrobatics, and became a five year long, peripatetic piece of performance art. It consisted of miniature sculptures made out of cheap materials such as wire, fabric, leather and cork, and eventually filled five large suitcases. By 1931 he had began to introduce moving parts into his individual abstract works. Upon seeing them, the artist Marcel Duchamp called them mobiles – which in French referring to both movement and motivation. Duchamp continued to be a support – co-curating a full-career survey in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Calder was the youngest artist ever to have been granted that honour by the museum.
Soon Calder abandoned the motors, cranks and the mechanics that gave his earliest mobiles their movement, in favour of carefully engineered sculptures that were able to respond to the slightest currents in the air. This liberation gave them the singular, compelling quality of being able to continually change their composition. Jean-Paul Sartre, visiting Calder’s American studio in 1945, admired the ephemeral qualities of these new sculptures. ‘Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it’, he wrote. ‘Time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance [and] you can discern the theme composed by its maker, but the mobile weaves a thousand variations on it. It is a little hot-jazz tune, unique and ephemeral, like the sky, like the morning. If you missed it, it is lost forever’ (J-P. Sartre, quoted in http://www.calder.org/life/system/downloads/1946-Sartre.pdf [accessed 19 September 2015]). Perhaps providing an explanation for the title of this particular work, Calder referred to his introduction of mobility in his sculptures as a type of choreography – an apt analogy, given his early interest in the circus and that he, along with many of his peers while in Paris, designed stage sets for theatre and dance productions. He designed moving sets for more than a dozen theatre productions for Martha Graham’s multi-part work, Horizons (1936), as well as for Erik Satie’s musical drama Socrates (1936). For this he devised a language of symbolic forms to illustrate grander narrative through abstract form. Metaphysical readings of abstract forms would eventually come to inform his understanding of abstraction, and lead to the profound simplicity so evident in Pequeña Cara Roja. ‘The basis of everything for me is the universe’, he said in an interview he gave in the 1960s. ‘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’, in The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York 1962).