This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A04528.
Hen is an outstanding example of Alexander Calder’s distinctive approach to sculpture, and particularly his use of elegant line and color. In Hen, Calder combines shared Surrealist tendencies with a bold creativity that is uniquely his own. The influential curator James Johnson Sweeney identified 1944, the year that Hen was executed, as a critical one for Calder, a time when he sought to innovate with new idioms and maintain his inventiveness. Hen holds a significant place in Calder’s artistic development, and as such was exhibited in the artist’s seminal 1988 retrospective Alexander Calder: 1898-1976 organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
Calder formed the body of this sculpture out of a large block of solid wood. Using the natural qualities inherent in his material, he articulated the object’s overall form; the rings of the tree guiding the contours of the sculpture’s shape, its grain and color suggesting the feathering of a bird. The transformation is completed by Calder affixing three smaller, additional wooden elements and using sections of thin metal to join these pieces to the sculpture’s body, giving the impression that these pieces are balancing or even floating. Calder then also introduces color with dramatic effect, with the natural tone of the wooden body offset by the artist’s trademark black, blue and red. Calder summarized his approach by stating that “an artist should go about his work simply with great respect for his materials… simplicity of equipment and an adventurous spirit are essential in attacking the unfamiliar and unknown… Disparity in form, color, size, weight, motion, is what makes a composition… It is the apparent accident to regularity which the artist actually controls by which he makes or mars a work” (A. Calder, quoted in J. Lipman, Calder’s Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977, p. 33).
Throughout his career, Calder was drawn to seemingly ordinary materials for his sculptures and used a wide variety of them, including wood, metal and glass. In 1943, the year that Hen was made, there was a dearth of aluminum with which to work because of the demands for metal caused by World War II. During the war, Calder had even cut up the aluminum boat he had made for his pond so he could continue to have materials for his work. However, Calder’s investigations with wood date back further that this; using wood in the mid-1920s, right around the time he had started crafting wire caricatures of people and animals. His alterations to the material were often minimal and he looked to harness its natural form and what that form suggested to him. Calder’s wood sculptures were well received and after they were first exhibited at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1929 one critic wrote that “Calder is nothing for your grandmother, but we imagine he will be the choice of your sons. He makes a mockery of the old-fashioned frozen-stone school of sculpture and comes nearer to life in his creations than do nine-tenths of the serious stone cutters” (M. Pemberton, quoted in J. Lipman, op. cit., p. 221).
Although his sculptures are largely abstract, Calder sometimes incorporated forms that were convincingly natural, even fantastical, as seen in sculptures like Steel Fish of 1934, a ten-foot-high standing mobile. The influential critic Clement Greenberg praised Calder’s natural forms after reviewing one of the artist’s exhibitions in 1943, writing that “Calder’s accomplishment is the invention of a new microcosm in 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… with no purpose other than the dance of their own movements” (C. Greenberg, “Alexander Calder: Sculpture, Construction, Jewelry Toys and Drawings,” The Nation, no. 157, October 23, 1943, p. 480).
The use of everyday, seemingly ordinary, materials traces its art historical roots to the Cubists and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, while the exaggerated and biomorphic form of Hen highlights Calder’s ties with the Surrealists. Calder was mostly based in Paris from 1926 until 1933 and he became friends with many of the leading figures of the Paris avant-garde, such as Duchamp, Jean (Hans) Arp and Joan Miró. While Calder chose never to officially align himself with the Surrealists, for instance he never signed any of their documents or manifestos, he did frequently exhibit with them. Calder’s first Surrealist exhibition was the seminal Surrealist Exhibition of Objects in 1936, which included works such as Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, Méret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur, and Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone. The potential for surprising combinations to create new meaning and the unlimited possibilities that can arise from metamorphosis expounded by the Surrealists also are evident in Calder’s Hen. However, as Sweeney pointed out, there also is a distinctive American element to Calder’s work: “The most conspicuous characteristics of his art are those which have been attributed to America’s frontier heritage–‘that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things… that restless, nervous energy… that buoyancy and exuberance which come with freedom’” (J. J. Sweeney, Alexander Calder, New York, 1951, p. 7).
Hen was executed the year of Calder’s major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the time the youngest person ever to have been afforded such an honor. As a result of this exhibition, Sweeney wrote that the artist “seemed to feel he should try and find a fresh idiom, or perhaps more truly a refreshment of idiom. He spoke of his worry of becoming ingrown, habit-bound and uninventive” (J. J. Sweeney, op. cit., p. 59). Hen demonstrates Calder’s unrelenting commitment to innovation that underpinned the mature phase of his career, as well as his remarkable technical acumen and creative verve.