‘This mobile, The Snake, by Calder, is one of the greatest sculptures he has done’
—L . WADDINGTON VOGUE MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 1986
‘I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate’
‘Calder particularly shone when he used the snake as a motif’
‘Time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance ... In it you can discern the theme composed by its maker, but the mobile weaves a thousand variations on it. It is a little hot-jazz tune, unique and ephemeral, like the sky, like the morning. If you missed it, it is lost forever’
—J - P. SARTRE
Elegantly protruding from the wall upon a twisting, serpentine support, Alexander Calder’s Le Serpent rouge (The Red Serpent) presents a majestic cascade of red, blue and black biomorphic forms. Subject to the slightest gust of air, mesmerizing combinations of wire and painted metal spring to life in sinuous kinetic harmony, casting ever-changing shadows upon their surroundings. Executed in 1958, it is one from of a rare group of wall-mounted sculptures dating from this year, based on brightly-coloured abstracted forms. Contemporaneous with the monumentally-scaled commissions that propelled him to international acclaim during this period – .125 ( John F. Kennedy Airport, New York), Whirling Ear (Brussels World Fair) and Spirale (UNESCO, Paris) – Le Serpent rouge demonstrates Calder’s continued affinity with the intricately-crafted mobiles he had pioneered during the 1930s. As an artist fascinated by the natural world, Calder’s practice is laced with lively animal references, and the snake – with its supple, malleable form – played a particularly significant role within his bestiary, inspiring early works such as Snake and the Cross, 1936 (Calder Foundation, New York), Whip Snake, 1944 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Snake on Arch, 1944 (Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln). Here, the creature’s coiled body becomes an architectonic feature: a fixed structure from which Calder’s beguiling ballet unfolds. Extending from his 1951 series of Towers, which featured elaborate abstract wall-mounts, Le Serpent rouge rekindles the sense of spirited fantasy that underpinned his earliest artistic endeavours. As the work meanders in spellbinding motion, Calder becomes a snake charmer, animating his earthbound materials as if through some hypnotic incantation. Encapsulating the magic and poetry that lies at the heart of his practice, the work was included in the artist’s 1969 retrospective at the Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence, which travelled to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. It has been held in the Waddington collection for nearly thirty years.
Having initially trained as an engineer after leaving school, Calder’s technical grounding enabled him to harness the physical forces of his media to spectacular optical effect. As Le Serpent rouge demonstrates, the kinetic nature of the mobiles provided Calder with an entirely new way of investigating colour: an element that had, in many ways, inspired his decision to become an artist. Calder spent time in Paris early in his career, and later – professing his particular affinity with the colour red – declared that ‘I often wish that I’d been a fauve in 1905’ (A. Calder, Calder, London 2004, p. 89). His decision to abandon his early figurative structures in favour of freely-moving abstract forms was inspired by his now-legendary visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930. Entranced by the experimental arrangements of coloured cardboard pinned to the artist’s studio walls, Calder recalled ‘I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate’ (A. Calder, quoted in Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, New York 1966, p. 113). Though Mondrian disagreed, Calder set about liberating the artist’s abstract planes into three-dimensions, drawing on his understanding of mechanical and physical laws to coerce his industrial materials into motion. By the late 1950s, the artist had achieved an unprecedented degree of control over his materials, blending a detailed understanding of structural dynamics with a lyrical aesthetic sensibility. The constituent parts of Le Serpent rouge are unified by a series of intricate, interconnected mechanisms that allow them to move both independently and in tandem with one another. Released from their static condition, the individual elements are propelled into a dynamic, life-affirming dance: eulogies to the invisible forces of motion and balance.
The second half of the 1950s was an important period for Calder. His various foreign excursions to Beirut, Ahmedabad and Caracas between 1954 and 1955 had reinvigorated his practice, affording him the freedom to re-engage with his craft in its most basic form. His return to America saw him inundated with high-profile commissions from major public sites: ‘in 1958’, he recalls, ‘I had three metal shops working for me, two in Waterbury and one, ten miles away, in Watertown. I got a sense of being a big businessman as I drove from one to another. In one shop, I was making the head of the object for Unesco, “The Spiral”; in another shop, I was making the forty-five-foot mobile for Idlewild (i.e. Kennedy International Airport, New York); in Watertown, in the third, I was making “The Whirling Ear” for the Brussels Fair’ (A. Calder, quoted in Calder, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1969, unpaged). As his works sprung up as landmarks around the world – from Europe and Australia to South America, Mexico, India and Israel – Calder took his place as one of the very first truly global artists, consolidated by his receipt of the prestigious Carnegie Prize in 1958. However, despite his increasing focus on these large-scale structures, Le Serpent rouge demonstrates that Calder never lost the capricious sense of wonder that had inspired his first forays into art during the 1920s: from the drawings of animals made in the Bronx and Central Park zoos, to the miniature mechanised menagerie of his Cirque Calder, to the delicate wire creatures that populate his early oeuvre. Combining the imaginative spirit of these works with the virtuosity of his monumental commissions, Le Serpent rouge demonstrates Calder at the height of his powers.