This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A07735.
'Calder's accomplishment is the invention of a new microcosm of art. Its flora and fauna are made of wire, sheet metal, piping, glass, wood, and anything else tangible. Its plants can be conceived of as those objects with leaves of metal, its animals those with flanged and bolted haunches, its geology the innovations of wire, string and pellets, while its machines are really machines - motor driven - with no purpose other than the dance of their own movements.' (C. Greenberg, 'Alexander Calder: Sculpture, Constructions, Jewelry, Toys and Drawings', in The Nation, no. 157, 23 October 1943, p. 480).
Executed in 1975, Two Fish Tails is a truly monumental work consisting of a series of tumbling cascades of black and red elements. Spanning over two and a half meters at its widest point and with a depth rarely seen in Calder's mobiles, this work is a breathtaking spectacle of movement and form. The composition is dominated by two fiery red forms in the shape of elegant fish tales and when caught by the slightest gust of wind they spring into life and glide through the air like tropical fish dancing around a coral reef.
As a symbol of serene and graceful movement, the fish has been one Alexander Calder's most iconic motifs and a device that he continued to return to during some of the most significant moments of his career. The fish form offered him endless possibilities to explore the nature of sculpture and push the boundaries of the medium. This enduring affinity continued throughout his long career and it is perhaps fitting that Two Fish Tails, one of the largest examples of this type, was produced the year before his death.
He began to explore the aesthetic possibilities of the fish form fully in 1934 when it appeared in his large scale sculptures. 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 large scale outdoor sculpture called Steel Fish. Many of these early complex constructions are often likened to the organic imagery of Joan Miró and Paul Klee. Calder and Miró formed a lifelong friendship after the pair first met in Paris in 1928 and lasted until Calder's death in 1976. But as Miró's work became more symbolic, Calder's became more abstract. Although his piscine forms become increasingly common, these works allude to forms without following them implicitly. When his mobiles and stabiles were shown at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York in 1939 a critic asked Calder to define the significance of these new forms. He replied, 'I really don't think it is possible that the thing can be reduced to a formula. Each thing I make has, according to its degree of success, a plastic quality which includes many things (). These things may be related, and they doubtless are, but I have formed no theories about the relation. An idea which will lead me to make a new 'object' may come from almost anywhere, from anything' (A. Calder quoted by M. Prather, Alexander Calder 1898-1976, Washington 1998, p. 138).
Calder's use of the fish tail form was to reach a wider audience when, in 1939, he was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to produce a work for their new building. The result was the spectacular Lobster Trap and Fish Tail. Consisting of a cascade of black organic elements that would become one of his trademark forms, along with a wire cage like trap and a bright red lure, this work was his largest hanging mobile to date and the commission that launched Calder's career as a public artist.
The success of Lobster Trap and Fish Tail meant that Calder had become a critical, as well as a commercial success. In 1943 the Museum of Modern Art staged a retrospective of his work, becoming the youngest artist ever to have been accorded the honor, an event that was to propel him into the ranks of America's most influential living artists. Although the fish form proved to be the perfect vehicle for enabling him to express his interest in the spontaneity and kinetic nature of his sculpture it also enabled him to indulge in the more intimate side of his work. In the winter of 1946 Peggy Guggenheim, the New York 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. The fish were not part of the work itself, but attached to it by thin wires, which meant that it would move and shimmer with every gust of wind or each time someone entered or left the room.
Perhaps fittingly, the piscine motif that had been so central to almost half a century of Calder's work is also the theme in one of Calder's final commissions. Unitled (1976) is a large mobile specially made for the Trustees of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to hang in the atrium of their new East Building. Produced a year after Two Fish Tails, and with striking parallels to the present lot in terms of both colour and form, the work is a majestic collection of black, orange and blue forms suspended below a shimmering glass ceiling. The effect of the sunlight bouncing off the gently moving multi-coloured forms is clearly referencing tropical fish swimming in the shallow pools of water.
Two Fish Tails is a stunning tribute to one of the twentieth century's most prolific and influential artists. It's monumental size and graceful and majestic movement is tantamount to Calder's skill not just as an engineer but also as an artist who took a thousand years of sculptural tradition and turned it upside down, and in doing so created some of the most innovative and influential works of the past one hundred years.