This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A01774.
One of the most inventive artists of the 20th Century, Alexander Calder's Baby Flat Top is a supreme example of the artist's unerring sense of balance and engineering ability. Intricate and complex, the sculpture incorporates five separate mobiles, of varying numbers of elements, into one unified work The sculpture is from a group of works executed in the mid-1940's in which Calder began to fully integrate the base/stand into the composition. A tour-de-force of weight distribution, Calder balanced the front and back mobiles with the larger elements suspended underneath the central black form--the flowing "tail" at the back is counterbalanced by the hanging red element underneath, while the multi-element mobile at the front is held in check by the two large black paddles. He gracefully looped the wires to a hook on the underside of the sculpture, allowing him to create an incredibly complex sculpture with an economy of means that mark his best work.
Calder created a larger sculpture called Flat Top, as well as the present lot which is smaller, fittingly titled Baby Flat Top. Although abstracted, Calder's work always has representational references. Baby Flat Top does evoke Calder's signature themes of celestial bodies and fantastic creatures, but the work's title is a clue to the artist's intended point of departure. Baby Flat Top was the nickname for the Navy's escort carriers, which were ships that patrolled the seas during World War II. Baby Flat Tops played a heroic and sometimes sacrificial role. They were lightly armored, slow moving and far less durable than their larger aircraft carrier cousins. Indeed, these ships, whose Navy designation was CVE, was jokingly referred to as "Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable". These ships carried a small number of planes and among other duties, escorted convoys of ships in need of protection against the deadly German submarine and U-boats.
The sculpture can be read as an abstracted naval battle, complete with fighter planes swirling above and around the Baby Flat Top, with its "anchor" (or perhaps submarine torpedoes) below. The tiny, yet elegant element at the back has five delicate tendrils which fire out from behind it, suggesting the movement of a projectile, or perhaps a trail of smoke from a plummeting plane.
Baby Flat Top was exhibited in a breakthrough 1946 exhibition at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris. Calder had been celebrated in a major retrospective in 1943-1944 at the Museum of Modern Art--the youngest artist to be given such treatment--but was less known in Europe. Although his bi-continental living arrangement between New York and Paris had made him many friends in art world circles, he had not had a solo show in Europe since 1933.
The genesis of the exhibition began with a visit by Marcel Duchamp to Calder's studio in Roxbury, Connecticut in the mid 1940's. When Duchamp saw the various small scale works in his studio, suggested that an exhibition be arranged at Louis Carré in Paris. During the war years, there were strict postal restrictions on the size and number of packages that could be sent, which made the idea of small works feasible. Calder embraced the challenge, yet was determined to created large-scale works in order to fill the cavernous Carré space.
Ingeniously, Calder created a series of large-scale works, including hanging and standing mobiles, including Baby Flat Top using only small pieces of metal and wire. The restrictions dictated that no package could be larger than 18 x 10 x 2 inches, so Calder ingeniously devised "portable" sculptures. For Baby Flat Top, the large pieces of wire have intricate hinges, so they can be folded over and the large central black form consists of four smaller sections that were screwed together in Paris. Even the central rod is collapsible, and his held in place by pins.
Having surmounted the technical hurdles, Calder also had to circumvent the restrictions on the number of packages that could be sent by a single person. To do this, Calder enlisted a slew of artists, friends and neighbors to each send packages to Carre. After months of logistical problems, mislaid packages and customs difficulties, (which led to a temporary delay), the exhibition opened on 25 October 1946 to widespread praise, marking the beginning of Calder's international acclaim which continues to the present date.
Installation of Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations at Galerie Louis Carré, Paris, 1946 c 2004 Estate of Alexander Calder/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Cover of the 1946 Calder exhibition at Galerie Louis Carré, c 2004 Estate of Alexander Calder/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE: 03343807
Alexander Calder with Eucalyptus, 1940 Photograph by Andre Kertesz c 2004 Estate of Alexander Calder/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Calder, Lily of Force, 1945 c 2004 Estate of Alexander Calder/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Alexander Calder, Drawing for Baby Flat Top, 1946 c 2004 Estate of Alexander Calder/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York