‘I often wish that I had been a fauve in 1905’ – A. Calder
Spanning over a metre in breadth, Alexander Calder’s Untitled presents a poetic cascade of yellow, red, blue and white forms, elegantly suspended from a series of delicate wire supports. Executed in 1967, and held in the Kahns’ collection for over forty years, the work is a mesmerising example of Calder’s iconic mobiles: masterpieces of precision-engineering achieved through careful calibrations of form, colour and structural dynamics. With its ten individually-sized plates of sheet metal fanned outwards like leaves upon a tree, the work combines technical virtuosity with understated lyrical beauty. Its constituent parts are unified by a series of intricate, interconnected mechanisms that allow them to move both independently and in tandem with one another. Casting ever-changing shadows upon its surroundings, the organic silhouette of the work is held in a perpetual state of flux, its carefully-balanced elements subject to the slightest gust of air. By the mid-1960s, Calder’s fame had reached international heights, propelled by the various large-scale commission pieces that were gradually taking their places at major sites around the world. Despite the physical grandeur of these works, it was in the mobiles created during this period that Calder continued to refine his pursuit of visual harmony, rigorously probing the kinetic properties of wire and metal. In his hands, these traditionally earthbound media sprung to life like enchanted beings, magically liberated from their static condition. Works such as Untitled allow us to glimpse the fundamental purpose of Calder’s art: eulogies to the invisible forces of motion and balance, they represent uninhibited celebrations of life. As Marcel Duchamp wrote, in a statement that speaks directly to the present work, ‘Pure joie de vivre. Calder’s art is the sublimation of a tree in the wind’ (M. Duchamp, entry on Calder for the Société Anonyme catalogue (1950), reprinted in M. Duchamp, Duchamp du Signe, Paris 1975, p. 196).
An intuitive engineer since childhood, Calder’s technical grounding enabled him to harness the physical forces of his media to spectacular optical effect. As Untitled demonstrates, the dynamic 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 proclaimed ‘I often wish that I had been a fauve in 1905’ (A. Calder, Calder, London 2004, p. 89). Like Henri Matisse and André Derain, who pioneered a non-literal approach to chromaticism, Calder embraced colour as a disparate rather than a representational force, relishing in the resonances and overtones of the bright hues he employed. The deliberate use of pure, flat primary colours – red, yellow and blue, as well as black and white – recalls the neo-plastic aesthetic of Piet Mondrian, whose studio he visited in 1930. Drawn to the coloured cardboard rectangles used for compositional experimentation that adorned the walls of the artist’s studio, Calder was fascinated by the studio’s environment-as-installation and the new abstract language it promised. As Calder later 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). It was no longer simply enough to observe them the wall: for Calder, this revolutionary new understanding of visual mechanics had to be experienced in real time and space.
Calder was, by his very nature, a craftsman, who revelled in the use of his hands. As James Johnson Sweeney recalled, ‘He has always avoided modeling in favor of direct handling – cutting, shaping with a hammer, or assembling piece by piece. Such an approach has fostered a simplicity of form and clarity of contour in his work. It allies with Brancusi, Arp, Moore and Giacometti their repudiation of virtuosity’ (J. J. Sweeney, Alexander Calder, exh. cat., New York 1951, reproduced in C. Giménez & A.S.C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London, 2004, p. 72). As his practice developed, Calder began to visit local metal workers, whose ateliers provided the space he needed to produce his large-scale mobiles. Wielding his pliers like a chisel or paintbrush, Calder redefined the relationship between artist and artisan in an age increasingly dominated by mechanical production. Selden Rodman draws a compelling parallel between Calder’s practice and the work of the Wright brothers. ‘It occurred to me when I saw the interior of the sculptor’s studio in Roxbury, Connecticut’, he writes. ‘This was no studio such as sculptors had traditionally worked throughout the ages. No casts, no marble, plaster, no armatures. Not a bicycle shop, be sure, but certainly a machine shop. The floor was deep in steel shavings, wire, nuts and bolts, punched sheet metal. The benches sagged under lathes and power saws. The air was busy with dangling “contraptions”, as the brothers in Dayton used to call their experimental warped airfoils and rudimentary engines. But more significantly, I thought, Wrights too were in love with simplicity, with perfection of motion and economy of means. They began and ended their work as artists’ (S. Rodman, ‘Conversations with Artists: Alexander Calder’, in C. Giménez and A. S. C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London 2004, p. 83). In Untitled, industrial materials take flight in a blaze of colour, airborne in perfect visual harmony.