This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A00562.
Sumac is a large, red mobile by Alexander Calder which was created in 1961 and was included in the important lifetime retrospective granted to the artist by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris between 1964 and 1965. This was an important landmark survey of Calder's works, confirming his place as one of the most revered figures of the art world of his day. As Harry F. Guggenheim wrote in his foreword to the catalogue that featured Sumac and several of Calder's other greatest works,
"Alexander Calder, in the judgement of many critics, is America's greatest modern sculptor. A comprehensive exhibition of his life at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is, therefore, an event we owe to a public that has on many occasions shown eager recognition of quality in the experimental and creative departures of our time. Frank Lloyd Wright's museum structure will undoubtedly provide a fitting frame for a sculptural form which, through its own grasp of space establishes a valid kinship with Wright's architectural vision" (H. F. Guggenheim, foreword to Alexander Calder: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., New York and Paris, 1964, p. 6).
Looking at Sumac, one can well imagine the dramatic effect that this expansive mobile would have had, swirling as it was suspended within the modern form of Wright's building. Documentary images from the time confirm the visual impact the exhibition had, with the playful, intricate mobiles and other works providing a fascinating counterpoint to the spiral cavern of the Guggenheim.
It was only too appropriate that the exhibition, as well as travelling within North America, also moved to the French capital, where it included several additional works. It was, after all, in Paris that Calder had been inspired to create so many of his most important works, crucially including his earliest "Mobiles." These had originally been inspired by a visit to Piet Mondrian's studio, where Calder had felt that the static fields of color that the Dutch artist had used to decorate his walls would look better animated. Mondrian disagreed, and apparently would subsequently come to claim that his paintings were faster than Calder's mobiles. However, looking at the bold red of Sumac, with its various fins and forms in motion, one can see the reverberations of that early color-driven epiphany. Calder would later explain that, compared to the movement of his mobiles, color was "secondary"; however, he then confessed, "I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish that I'd been a fauve in 1905" (A. Calder, quoted in H. Mulas and H.H. Arnason, Calder, London, 1971, p. 69).
In Sumac, Calder's love of this intense red is palpable. The color is animated by the gentle and mysterious movements of the mobile as it shifts, prompted by the changing atmospheric conditions or a gentle push. Some of the forms are horizontal, some vertical, allowing for an extra play of light and variation within the effects that each element creates. This is heightened by the spindly red wire from which the various fin-like forms hang. These various visual impressions make the title all the more appropriate: this mobile is named after the Sumac, a tree which often sports bold red clusters of fruit, and whose leaves, when moved by the wind, gently sway as do the moving parts of this mobile, adding another layer of aptness to the title.
This also links Sumac to nature in referential terms: in harnessing movement in this way, Calder has also managed to harness some of the underlying rhythms of nature. After all, it is sometimes nature that appears to set his mobiles into motion, say in the form of a gentle breeze. And it is the movement of nature, on both the small scale and the large that underpins the movements of a mobile such as Sumac: this sculpture echoes wind-strewn leaves; it has a vivid, autumnal feel because of the red elements; and at the same time, it echoes in its sequences of interconnected movement, the slow, clockwork-like progress of the planets and stars themselves. This red constellation provides the viewer with an abstracted microcosm of the movements that are constantly occurring within the Universe itself. As Calder himself explained, "The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from" (A. Calder, quoted in C. Giménez & A.S.C. Rower (ed.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London, 2004, p. 52).
It is a tribute to the importance of Sumac that it was formerly in the collection of the Kreeger family of Washington, D.C.. Carmen and David Kreeger began collecting art in 1959, and within a short time had amassed an impressive array of works featuring a range of artists. While this included pictures by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Mondrian, Picasso, Arshile Gorky, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró, it also featured a strong group of sculptures with works by Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, and others. Many of those works are now housed in the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C., which was opened in 1997. David Kreeger explained the ethos of his collection in terms that are appropriate to Calder's magical Sumac: "I never bought art as an investment. I bought it for love and I was lucky. Art that embodies the creative spirit of men transcends the value of money" (D. Kreeger, quoted at www.kreegermuseum.org).