This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A07516.
The Kahns owned several important hanging mobiles and stabiles, an extensive collection of jewelry and a selection of beautiful gouaches and drawings, some of which are dedicated to the Kahns themselves. “I would often get up in the middle of the night to listen to the Calders move through the air, and watch the shadows they created. It was an experience like none other, and such a privilege to be surrounded by such beauty” remembered daughter Karen Kahn.
Alexander Calder’s remarkable sculpture, The Fish, amply demonstrates the breadth and diversity of the artist’s prolific career. The sleek black outline of the fish combined with the complex construction of animated elements that comprise the fish’s head and body demonstrate the artist’s unique compositional ability, unsurpassed technical execution and sheer ingenuity in a single sculpture. Although much of Calder’s work was non-referential, the fish motif was one that occurred throughout his life; from Steel Fish, one of the artist’s early standing mobiles he created in 1934, to the themed bed head he made for Peggy Guggenheim in 1946, and continuing with his large scale mobiles and stabiles, such as the present work and Yellow Whale created during the late 1950s, the symbolic nature of the fish seemed to encompass much of what Calder wanted to achieve in his unique brand of sculpture.
He first began to explore the aesthetic possibilities of the fish form in 1929 with his exquisitely delicate work, Goldfish Bowl. By 1934, it appeared again in his large-scale sculptures, and in the summer of that year, buoyed by the warm temperatures and his recent move to an old farmhouse he’d purchased in Connecticut, Calder produced a monumental outdoor sculpture called Steel Fish. Many of these early complex constructions coincide with the organic imagery of Hans Arp and Paul Klee. The form proved to be the perfect vehicle for enabling him to express his interest in the spontaneity and kinetic nature of his sculpture and also enabled him to indulge in the lively and more intimate side of his work. In the winter of 1945-46, Peggy Guggenheim, the socialite and art collector, commissioned Calder to make her a silver bed head for her apartment in New York. Calder chose to craft for her a magical, shimmering depiction of an underwater garden. He included two simple fish motifs in the bottom left of the work, closest to where Peggy Guggenheim would have entered the room. In an added touch of brilliance, the fish were not part of the work itself, but attached to it by thin wires, which meant that they would move and shimmer with every gust of wind or each time someone entered or left the room. Peggy Guggenheim became particularly fond of Calder’s work containing his fish motif. A large, fish mobile hung in the drawing room of her apartment and often became a talking point during her glamorous cocktail parties.
Of all of Calder’s forms, in terms of its size, complexity and sheer delight, The Fish is among the most important and celebrated subject matters of his career. Its dynamic forms and graceful scale are supreme examples of his skill as an engineer and an artist who took centuries of a sculptural tradition and turned it upside down. Swimming, soaring and pulsating in the sky, The Fish demonstrates the artist’s interest in the kinetic possibilities of sculpture and the artist’s reduction of the palette to black alone underscores his desire to create a new and radical form with this work. In describing Calder’s mobiles Jean-Paul Satre speaks of “the art of carving movement in a motionless mass”—and The Fish surely conjures up this idea. As Satre elegantly wrote in 1947:
“A ‘mobile,’ one might say, is a little private celebration, an object defined by its movement and having no other existence. It is a flower that fades when it ceases to move, a ‘pure play of movement’ in the sense that we speak of pure play of light. I possess a bird of paradise with iron wings. In needs only to be touched by a breath of warm air: the bird ruffles up with a jingling sound, rises, spreads its tail, shakes its crested head, executes a dance step, and then, as if obeying a command, makes a complete about-turn with wings outspread” (J. Satre, “Calder’s Mobiles”, Alexander Calder, exh. cat., Buchholz Gallery, 1947).