A Year in the Work of Alexander Calder
By RANDY KENNEDY
Published: October 18, 2011
Some of the best-known photographs of Alexander Calder, taken in 1941 by his friend Herbert Matter, show Calder in the high-windowed studio he fashioned from an old icehouse in Roxbury, Conn., surrounded by such an explosion of sculpture and sheet-metal scraps that it looks as if a small airplane had just crashed into the site.
G.R. Christmas/courtesy Pace Gallery
“Untitled (Red Petals Maquette),” from 1941.
The photographs have had a life of their own, but many of the pieces memorialized in them — the strikingly delicate kinds of constructions Calder began to make that year — all but vanished from public view after they were exhibited in the early 1940s. Most went into private collections and have rarely been shown since. And at least one piece in the studio that year, an elegantly lanky structure nearly eight feet high that he called “Tree,” almost disappeared for good; Calder disassembled it when it failed to sell and then gave away the tall black metal base to an ironworker friend who liked the way it looked.
“He always had this problem of storage,” said Alexander Rower, Calder’s grandson, “even with so much space. He just made so many things, and he never liked looking back.”
Many years ago Mr. Rower, the president of the Calder Foundation, discovered the hanging mobile portion of that sculpture tied up neatly in a shoe box, and then in 2008 he was able to regain possession of the base, known as a stabile, which the ironworker had kept for decades near Waterbury.
The other day in the foundation’s offices on West 25th Street in Chelsea, Mr. Rower stood alongside the striking results of his efforts to revive the work from the dead: the restored base and the mobile, punctuated by a bright red dangling shard from a car’s taillight, are back together again, looking like a Seussian visitor from another planet.
Beginning on Friday, that piece and more than a dozen others will go on display in a kind of miniature museum show at the Pace Gallery’s uptown branch, which represents the Calder estate and has collaborated with the foundation to shine a focused historical spotlight on 1941, considered a seminal year in the artist’s career.
The show, at 32 East 57th Street, will not only reunite works from that year but will also bring many back to almost the same place where they were first (and, in some cases, last) shown, in 1941, directly across the street in the Fuller Building, where Pierre Matisse — the legendary dealer and son of Henri — operated his gallery and represented Calder for years.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, even as Calder’s international acclaim was growing, his works were still not highly sought after, and when they sold, it was often for relatively little money. A copy of a Pierre Matisse sales ledger in the foundation’s files shows that only a few pieces in the 1941 show found buyers, one of whom, Solomon R. Guggenheim, paid all of $233.34 — or about $3,500 in today’s money — for a work. (The Museum of Modern Art had bought its first Calder in 1934 for $60, after talking Calder down from $100.)
But this was the period when Calder was beginning to take many of the disparate ideas about abstract art he had formed during seven years of living in Paris and play with them in much more complex ways, combining his mobiles (a name given to the creations by Marcel Duchamp) and stabiles (a term coined later by Jean Arp) in a way that became his signature.
“Those inventions, if you will, along with his work with wire from his earlier pieces, progressed, and they were all more than tools for him,” said Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace, which has organized 10 previous exhibitions of Calder work, beginning in the 1970s. “They were like axioms that he began to use for experimentation. They proliferated in an amazing way during this year.”
“The year is particularly marked by these unbelievable arcing lines, that are so beautiful, the result of a very fine level of balancing in the work,” Mr. Glimcher added. “The lines look like lines that are drawn. They don’t look like lines that exist in physical space. It tricks your eye.”
He and others at the gallery refer to this as the Audrey Hepburn Effect. “It sounds corny,” he said, “but the lines bring to mind the image of the cigarette holder on the ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ poster, and the line of Hepburn’s arms.”
Because of what happened at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the year also ended up becoming the end, in a sense, of Calder’s first classic period of abstraction. Soon, shortages in aluminum, the primary metal he worked with, led him to a greater use of wood and bronze for several years and to the more delicate, spidery sculptures he called constellations, made from small pieces of wood linked by wires.
Perhaps something about the war years also led Calder away from a certain kind of experimentation that existed in his earlier works.
“Some of the found wood and the strings and broken glass, all that weird diversity disappears, not entirely but in large part,” said Mr. Glimcher, who added that only a couple of works were for sale in the show, which was conceived as part of a sporadic, continuing Calder historical initiative, more curatorial than commercial. (Though the motivations are not entirely noncommercial. “Of course it attracts Calder business into the gallery,” he said. “And it doesn’t take too many Calders to make it a major business to be in.”)
In the whitewashed galleries of the Calder Foundation, a few other works besides “Tree” sat recently, awaiting the trip to the gallery uptown. One, “The Great Yucca,” a bright mobile-stabile, has not been exhibited anywhere since the 1941 Matisse Gallery show, Mr. Rower said.
But another, smaller work, “Myrtle Burl,” was the one that seemed to exude the strangest power. It is made from a plain, scabby knot of burled wood, atop which sprout wires with apostrophe-shaped metal pendants, “like these bizarre hairs growing up and out,” as Mr. Rower described them.
“He never made another piece from burled wood, or another piece quite like it,” he added. “Who knows why, or what was going through his mind at the time.”
Calder most likely would have been pleased to know that 70 years after its making, the piece still had the power to provoke such questions and to elude the answers.
“That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential,” he once said of his work, “at least as long as they have something else in theirs.”