This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A23806.
The constellation of colorful shapes and forms that comprise Alexander Calder’s Untitled are an exemplary illustration of the advanced form of sculpture for which the artist became known—the mobile. Beginning in the 1930s, Calder took the radical approach to take sculpture off its traditional pedestal and breathe new life into this traditional genre by adding color and movement. In Untitled, the graceful movement of the individual elements epitomizes Calder’s desire to achieve a sense of equilibrium in his work. “I have two things in mind,” he said, “I want them to be more alive, and I think about balance... The most important thing is that the mobile be able to catch the air” (A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 230). This blend of harmony and balance can be seen in Calder’s carefully engineered selection of colorful elements, which he combines to produce works of paramount beauty and grace.
Suspended by a single wire, Calder’s arrangement of thirteen cascading forms is ordered into a series of distinct components, each almost a sculpture in its right. The upper most arrangement is comprised of five horizontal chevron-shaped elements evoking the sight of birds soaring high in the sky on summer thermals. Moving down the composition, three upright fronds—one yellow sandwiched between two black—are counterbalanced by a single small black disc which sits opposite them. As the eye descends through the configuration a striking red element is placed in isolation before the work concludes in a series of three black discs that act as an anchor for the entire composition. In adherence to the principles of balance, which Calder held so dear, two of the largest elements have been pierced in order to adjust both the physical and visual weight of his mobiles, increasing their sense of transparency and surface animation.
Another fundamental element central to Calder’s compositions exemplified in Untitled is that of color. The artist felt that color heightened the kinetic relationship between each of the individual elements. As he put it, “I have chiefly limited myself to the use of black and white as being the most disparate colors,” he explained. “Red is the color most opposed to both of these—and then, finally, the other primaries. The secondary colors and intermediate shades serve only to confuse and muddle the distinctness and clarity” (Ibid.).
The successful execution of his mobiles relies not only on his unique aesthetic vision, but also his considerable technical skill. Despite coming from an artistic family (both his father and grandfather were accomplished sculptors and his mother was professional portrait painter) Calder chose to study mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. After taking several jobs in the engineering field he enrolled at New York’s Art Students League. While he was there an assignment for the National Police Gazette (where he worked part-time as an illustrator) took him to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He fell in love with the sights and sounds of the circus, where the sense of drama and excitement inherent in the performance can only be fully appreciated when seen in the round. This in turn inspired him to produce his now famous Cirque Calder (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). This sense of spectacle lies at the heart of Calder’s oeuvre and is the quality which sets his work apart from the usual static appreciation of sculpture.
Soon after the work was created, it was given by the artist to the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. She was an influential urban planner and architect who(along with the world renown landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx)would go on to design and build the Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro, the city’s largest public park and home to the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art. Soares was also the lover of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and the pair lived in southeastern Brazil where the work hung in their home, as documented in a delicate watercolor painted by Bishop featuring the sculpture hanging next to the stove.
Untitled comes with the distinguished provenance of having been in the collection of the prominent statesman, Nelson A. Rockefeller—a highly regarded public servant, philanthropist and art collector. Rockefeller was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company and served as the 41st Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford. He also served four, 4-year terms as 49th Governor of New York between 1959 and 1973. He inherited a head for business from his grandfather and also possessed a keen eye for art which was inherited from his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his mother, Abigail Green “Abby” Aldrich Rockefeller. Abby was the driving force behind the formation of the Museum of Modern Art, which Rockefeller served as trustee, treasure, and President from 1939 to 1953. Rockefeller also built his own collection of both modern and non-Western art, which he displayed at his residences in New York City and the Hudson Valley. He took a hands-on approach to his own collection, personally supervising the placement of each piece. As he once said in conversation with his brother, Laurence Rockefeller: “I am looking for the ultimate position for each one with the thought of never moving it again.”
As a devoted collector, Nelson Rockefeller often went to visit the artists in their studios. Friendships between them developed as he shared his appreciation of their gifts. They realized he was also an artist himself with an artist’s eye. Rockefeller also met with Picasso to ask him to create a series of tapestries from some of his famous paintings, including the Acrobat and the Demoiselles d’Avignon, and with Matisse and Chagall to create the memorial stained glass windows at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills in memory of his grandparents and his son, Michael. Alexander Calder was rare amongst artists in that he developed his own unique form of artistic expression. Neither traditional painting nor traditional sculpture, his work broke new ground by combining the best elements of both. In Untitled, a beautifully balanced and graceful composition, one witnesses a high point in Calder’s work in which he combines aesthetic simplicity with a complexity that belies its beauty. Writing in 1946, the French philosopher (and friend of Calder) Jean-Paul Sartre summed up the artist’s work thus, “His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes. (J. Sartre, “Les Mobiles des Calder,” in Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations, exh. cat., Galerie Louis Carre, Paris, 1946, pp. 6-19, English translation by Chris Turner).