Alexander Calder at Modern Art & Design

At this autumn's Modern Art & Design, we are presenting three gouache paintings that were previously part of a significant Swedish collection.

Alexander Calder, Incertitude

With his moving sculptures – mobiles – Alexander Calder revolutionised the world of art, where he is rightfully considered one of the true giants. Calder drew and painted keenly throughout his oeuvre, and it was through these media that he tested his ideas. During the year he spent in Aix-en-Provence (1953), he started painting in gouache – a kind of water-based colour – and he remained a devotee of gouache painting for the rest of his life. The giant sculptural works in metal took a very long time to complete, and he was able to work more directly on these paintings at the same time. In his gouache works, Calder employed the same secretive vocabulary that we recognise from his sculptures: spirals, celestial bodies, red suns and cacti composed of multiple layers. He lauded the dialogue between the surrounding nature and the subconscious landscape, and his palette was focused heavily on the primary colours of blue, red and yellow.

Alexander Calder was born into a family of artists in Philadelphia, USA. He originally chose not to follow in his parents' footsteps, studying to become an engineer and taking on all sorts of different work before he finally accepted his destiny and enrolled in the Arts Student League in New York. Following his exams in 1926, Calder moved to Paris. Here, he created small wire figures that he later developed into a miniature circus, operated by the artist himself to the accompaniment of music played on a gramophone in a kind of primitive performance. This Cirque Calder featured masters of ceremonies, lion tamers and acrobats inspired by the Vaudeville scenes in Paris and by artistes such as Josephine Baker. It was through his circus that he achieved his breakthrough, as it brought him to the attention of leading artists including Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Jean Arp and Joan Miró.

The meeting with Mondrian proved crucial to Calder's artistic development. He himself describes the visit to his studio as a jolt that made things happen. "Mondrian's studio was painted white, with large fields coloured red, blue and yellow; it was also dotted with offset objects and artworks which thus became part of a giant rectangular static harmony: if only I could have set it all in motion ..." he later explained. Mondrian's influence is clearly reflected in Calder's choice of colours, but above all in the stride he took into a completely abstract expression when he started experimenting with shapes without any kind of reference to reality. However, Calder quickly realised that the problem facing an abstract sculptor was not the same as that faced by a painter, in that the challenge facing him was to define the various volumes in the space by the simplest possible means – and to set them in motion.

He took his first tentative steps towards moving sculptures by installing small motors to drive the different creations in complex movements in the space. These first motorised sculptures were displayed at the Galerie Vignon in Paris in 1932, but shortly after this exhibition he started to create compositions that he suspended from the ceiling for the air to move. His artist colleague Marcel Duchamp named them "mobiles" and a new designation in the field of art history was born.

If Mondrian played a key role in Calder making a crucial stride in his art, then it was his friend Joan Miró who helped him to find the form of expression that went on to become his best-known legacy. Calder realised that his fundamental approach lay much closer to Miró's abstract surrealism based on organic forms than to Mondrian's refined, plastic geometry. The inspiration he drew from Miró is particularly evident in his work from the 1950s. Some of the sculptures he created in this period appear to be almost three-dimensional representations of Miró's paintings.

When the name of Alexander Calder it mentioned, it is often his monumental sculptures – located outside museums, on avenues and in parks – that first spring to mind. Or his playful wire sculptures from the 1920s. A large part of his rich oeuvre was, however, generated through a continuous stream of drawing and painting, and it may be here that the most central elements of his work are to be found. Because it was through these media that he explored shape, colour and composition. It was also here that his most important ideas were born – in a powerful and immediate flow. The works for sale at this autumn's Modern Auction are significant to the art of Alexander Calder. They were created during a period when he was working intensively with gouache painting, and they contain all the energy of movement in the idiom that is so distinctive of Calder.

The Calder Foundation
Archive no:s A12891, A12264 och A11726 by The Calder Foundation.

Lot 731 Alexander Calder, Incertitude

Lot 732 Alexander Calder Luck

Lot 733 Alexander Calder Gamble

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