This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A04802.
Above what appears to be the shape of an open water lily, three insects hover gracefully above the appealing flower. A butterfly floats as if poised to land on one of the pointed leaves, above it a small insect buzzes around, and above that a large dragonfly darts to and fro. What is remarkable about this scene is not the delicate elegance of its pastoral nature, but that it has been conjured up entirely out the twists and turns of brass wire and nylon thread, fashioned by the skilled hand of Alexander Calder. As such, Calderoulette is an exemplary example of the type of magical and imaginative creations that distinguished the artist’s career. Using only his simple raw material, a simple set of tools and his considerable imagination, he was able to produce works of exquisite beauty that defied the traditional medium of sculpture.
As is often the case with Calder’s work, there is more to Calderouette than initially meets the eye. For, as the name suggests, Calder’s open lily flower also mimics the design of a roulette wheel. In each of the open flower petals Calder has placed a numerical digit, a marker of sorts that invites the viewer to join Calder in playing a round of nature-based roulette, guessing which petal an insect will land on first. This sense of joie de vivre is something that is present throughout Calder’s oeuvre, from his early wire Circus works, through to his large scale outdoor standing mobiles that changed their appearance as they are blown by the wind. “Wit often is expressed in a graphic medium,” the critic Mark Rosenthal said, “and Calder was a fluid draftsman… His facility with line imbued his wire figures… and would come to characterize his sculptures, where the “line” of the wire seems so free as to have been improvised” (M. Rosenthal, “The Surreal Calder: A Natural,” in M. Rosenthal, The Surreal Calder, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2005-2006, p. 25).
Cadleroulette is indicative of the ingenious and inventive sculptures that Calder produced during the early part of his career. He first began twisting thin metal wire into three dimensional forms as early as the 1920s and some have suggested that these forms emerged out of the gold and silver jewelry that he had been making as personal gifts to give to friends. In addition to his extraordinary dexterity, Calder’s natural skill as a draughtsman also contributed to his graphic lyricism. This form of sculpture rose to its ultimate form with Silver Bed Head (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice), a magnificent work that he produced for the legendary collector and dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, in the winter of 1945-1946. Teaming with natural and animated forms, both works are splendid examples of the resourcefulness of the artist’s work from this period and share the spontaneity and inventiveness of Calder’s twisting line, capturing natural and ever-moving forms in burnished metal.
Although resolutely a sculptor, it is the quality of Calder’s line that distinguishes his work from that of his peers. Here, instead of pen and ink, Calder’s vision is captured in brass. But despite the seemingly inflexible nature of his materials, Calder is able to create something animated and lively. “The line acts as if independent of the hand and mind of the artist,” writes Mark Rosenthal, “at the same time, it spontaneously defines space and whatever animate or inanimate elements that emerge within it…” (M. Rosenthal, “The Surreal Calder: A Natural,” in M. Rosenthal, The Surreal Calder, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2005-2006, p. 25). In addition, the lustrous quality of the metal adds a further dimension to the work, as its surface reflects light in numerous directions, adding variety and an additional dimensionality to each of Calder’s nomadic lines.
Natural themes and fantastical animal forms began to appear in Calder’s work as early as the 1930s. One of the first was a striking ten-foot-high construction called Steel Fish, one of several large-scale standing mobiles produced in 1934, and in 1937 he created his first bolted sculpture, Whale, a stabile assembled from curving sheets of metal. These shapes can also trace their lineage to the organic imagery of Surrealists such as Joan Miró and PaulKlee, transformed by Calder into three-dimensional worlds that appear to be in a constant state of flux. Indeed, the predilection for animal imagery came early for the artist, his first sculpture—at the age of 4 years old—was a clay elephant, and when he was only nine, he cut and soldered together a small dog of sheet brass.
Calderoulette was created during a prolific point in the artist’s career. In 1943, he was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the time the youngest person ever to have been afforded such an honor. Reviewing another exhibition held the same year, the influential critic Clement Greenberg wrote praising Calder’s imagery of nature. “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, 23 October 1943, p. 480).
An exquisite evocation of Calder’s skill, this working encompasses many of the qualities that make Calder’s work so iconic and desirable. Calderoulette is a delightful standing mobile that combines the magical suspension of the artist’s mobiles with the stability and balance of the later stabiles. As the artist himself surmised, “A mobile in motion leaves behind an invisible wake behind it, or rather, each element leaves an individual wake behind its individual self. Sometimes these wakes are concentrated within each other, and sometimes they are deployed” (A. Calder, quoted by M. Prather, Alexander Calder 1898-1976, 1998, Washington, p. 137).