This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A02560.
The lively palette and riotous array of evocative forms in Alexander Calder’s Seven Black, Red and Blue demonstrates that Calder’s sense of form and space is as equally at home in two-dimensions as it is in three. This painting forms an important, but often overlooked, part of the artist’s oeuvre and one that plays a pivotal role in the development of the artist’s unique visual aesthetic. Painted in 1947, following the upheaval caused by the World War II, Calder unleashed his creative ability in a flurry of activity. The result was a prolific period during which he executed several important works, and culminated in him representing the United States at the XX VI Venice Biennale, winning the grand prize for sculpture.
Set against a vivid backdrop that graduates from bright yellow to a deep, warm red, Calder displays an eclectic array of shapes. Two large disks, one deep red and one deep blue, hover in the central portion of the canvas surrounded by several mysterious and enigmatic forms. Serpentine silhouettes appear to move the up the surface of the work, next to twisting and turning curlicues of inky blackness. Also included are triangular shapes (evocative of a magician’s or sorcerer’s hat) that imbue the entire arrangement with a cosmic and magical atmosphere. All the forms included here are suggestive of the shapes that the artist was introducing into his mobiles. From themulticolored disks that he was using in works such as Myxomatose, 1953 to the curved forms that would form the basis of his later large-scale Stabiles, the graphical arrangement in Seven Black, Red and Blue is remarkably prescient of what was to come. As Marla Prather, the curator of Calder’s 1998 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art notes, “These exuberant compositions contain Calder’s familiar imagery of spirals, disks, and biometric shapes, but the forms are embedded in a painterly matrix that makes these compositions Calder’s most expressionist and gestural to date…” (M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 229).
The enigmatic forms that populate the surface of Seven Black, Red and Blue recall the paintings of Calder’s great friend, Joan Miró. The pair met in Paris in 1928 and Miró arguably became Calder’s confidante from that time forward. Both were interested in bringing elements of spontaneity into their art and both sought to engage elements from nature through the use of abstract forms, though in entirely different ways. There are clear parallels between the work of the two artists as both Calder and Miró incorporate floating biomorphic forms which are connected by delicate black lines in their work. In the case of Miró, the forms float against atmospheric backgrounds, while in the case of Calder, the forms literally float in the air. In the case of the present work, the enigmatic forms evoke Miro’s highly regarded series of Constellations, visibly demonstrating the innovative nature of Calder’s artistic practice during this period in his career.
Calder’s choice of motifs appears to have been influenced by both the artist’s background in physics and the poetics of energy. Having studied mechanical engineering, the artist was intrigued by the innate order of the world and the unseen forces at work keeping things moving forward. This interest in science and mathematics might seem opposed at first to the more romantic associations of poetry, but in fact the two interests were intricately linked for Calder. “He grasped the inextricable relationship between immediate appearances and the hidden forces that shape our world. The lyricism of the works…has everything to do with Calder’s genius for turning to art’s advantage an investigation of the nature of the world generally believed to be the purview of physics, a way of seeing inaugurated not by artists but by the primary texts of Euclid and Isaac Newton. Calder, although not a scientist in any traditional sense, was moved by a desire, common among early twentieth-century thinkers, to see the poetry of everyday life as shaped by heretofore invisible principles and laws. We sometimes forget that the intimate relationship between science and alchemy and magic of all kinds, taken for granted in early modern times, was still very much a factor around the turn of the century” (J. Perl, “Sensibility and Science,” in Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013, p. 41).
Seven Black, Red and Blue also demonstrates Calder’s unique approach to the use of color in his work. For Calder, color was not based on ideas of decoration, but became an intrinsic part of the composition where each color was used to help distinguish it from other elements. “I want things to be differentiated. Black and white are first—then red is next…. I often wish that I’d been a fauve in 1905.” (A. Calder, Calder, London, 2004, p. 89).
Calder’s paintings, along with his iconic mobiles, demonstrates his truly unique and revolutionary approach to art. Seven Black, Red and Blue is a dynamic arrangement of various shapes and a range of colors that make this particular work an intoxicating summation of Calder’s career at this point. Energy, color and the essence of nature and the universe is laid out across the surface of this work. It acts as fitting synopsis of the visual aesthetic he defined and is the perfect embodiment of the elation he found in creating such work.