Alexander Calder - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Provenance

    Perls Galleries, New York
    Makler Galleries, Philadelphia
    Irving R. Segal, Philadelphia
    Christie’s, New York, Contemporary Art, May 7, 1996, lot 20
    Private Collection, Geneva
    Russeck Gallery, Palm Beach

  • Catalogue Essay

    “The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from.”

    One of the great gifts that Alexander Calder left the world of art was not only his magical and prolific body of work, but also his testimonials and statements about his process. We can point to the Surrealists and Futurists and Cubists in an attempt to talk about a movement, employing their common tenets as the basis and theory of their work; yet, with Calder, his work is a movement of its own. Such a seamless integration of engineering excellence, aesthetic marvel, and philosophical whimsy has not been seen since Calder ceased to create. As Calder’s carrier entered its later decades in the 1960s and 1970s, he dedicated much of his efforts to installations based on specific spaces, pieces that would highlight and enhance their surroundings; this is indeed the genesis of the present lot, The White Face, 1969, where we see Calder’s experience of many years of creation come alive under the guise of his magnificent mobile.

    Calder’s early background is a necessary prelude to a description of The White Face, since so much of his initial work seems now to have a teleological end in his later work. As the son and grandson of two of the most esteemed architects and sculptors of early American metal and stone, Calder’s fated career as a visual artist is not surprising. What is unexpected, however, is Calder’s route to that realization. His early inclinations turned away from the creative path and he found himself an engineering student with a penchant for structural mechanics. Working aboard a passenger ship, the H.F. Alexander, Calder’s privileged view of mountain scenery and the unmitigated glow of the heavenly bodies soon led him to sketching and painting. As the years passed, he found a special fondness for Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, where the physical and mechanical underpinnings of the show were as compelling as the spectacle that they made possible.

    Calder’s solidarity with the growing avante garde movements of the 1920s led him to Paris, where he further indulged his interests in balance and design, even leading to work as a set designer for the ballet under Martha Graham. Absorbing the influence of his toy-making work from the first few years of his stay in France, Calder created what is now recognized as the forebear of his early career’s most recognizable work: the Cirque Calder. Incorporating his later mainstays of mobiles and mounted sculpture, the Cirque Calder was a compact model of the circus, employing elements both aesthetic and functional. Calder’s piece soon gained notoriety amongst the avant-garde artists of 1920s Paris for its method of transportation: a suitcase.

    But Calder’s influences were not limited to the entertainments of the masses. Arnauld Pierre comments on Calder’s early work and its basic principles of mechanical design and balance: “It might be said that Calder sculpted less with materials than with the potentiality of motion. This potentiality occurs thanks to the principle of stable equilibrium around which are organized the active masses. Stable equilibrium ensures that the articulated parts of the mobile spontaneously return to their initial state when they are being caused by external circumstance to move away from it (by being blown or pushed).”(A. Pierre, Motion-Emotion: the Art of Alexander Calder, New York, 1999, p. 8) Calder’s emerging sculptural work was based as much in principle on the motions of the heavens as they were on the organized chaos of the circus.

    Calder’s work finally began its transition into its most beloved and cherished forms during the 1930s. Both his floor mounted pieces, interactive sculptures in and of themselves, and his hanging mobiles began to appear with regular frequency. Calder also began to include color, in part because of his close artistic relationship to Joan
    Miró. Consequently, Calder’s work began to display warmth—almost a friendliness in its accessibility and popularity with all ages. Critics and children alike found themselves entranced with the combination of whimsical movement and the ability to influence the movement of Calder’s structures.

    Experimenting with a wide variety of forms, enormous and small, ground mounted and suspended, and even a series of paintings, Calder’s first love as an artist was always the mutability of his subjects. The White Face, 1969 comes towards the twilight of Calder’s robust career, yet its beauty and poignancy clearly display an artist at the
    height of his powers. Hanging from a single focus point, the present lot is a tri-chromatic assemblage of the shapes of Calder’s past. Two groupings of rival weights are positioned opposite each other, each allied in perfectly equaled strength against the other. Though they could easily change orientation from the perspective of the observer with an easy breeze or a slight touch of the hand, the black discs of painted sheet metal loom larger than their glowing crimson counterparts. The two
    pitch shapes are carved to resemble something almost extra-terrestrial, perhaps ships from another world. Attached is a single white form, punctured three times with ovoid shapes of its own. The greatest black figure is adorned with a void that resembles the crescent moon, an astrological sign in a piece with an otherworldly
    bent. The three allies are shrouded in mystery, suspended delicately in space.

    The far side of the present lot holds a different story. Less placid and more enthusiastic than their black counterparts, these eight crimson polygons range in geometry
    from questionable triangles to imperfect rhombuses, many with truncated edges. Smaller in size but more variable in their tendency to shift and spin, Calder lends them
    a mechanical hierarchy of sorts: closest to the source of balance is the figure with the greatest size and weight, which in turn, begets connections to smaller and smaller
    figures. Calder’s brilliant balance was a result of his near-mystical connection to the forging and assembly of his pieces—he places the shapes in proximity to one another based on the invisible result of their union: “When I use two circles of wire intersecting at right angles, this to me is a sphere—and when I use two or more sheets of metal cut into shapes and mounted at angles to each other, I feel that there is a solid form, perhaps concave, perhaps convex, filling in the dihedral angles between them. I do not have a definite idea of what this would be like, I merely sense it and occupy myself with the shapes one actually sees.” (A. Calder, “What Abstract Art Means to Me”, in Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, no. 3 [Spring 1951], p. 9)

    The observer’s ultimate experience with Calder’s piece is unique: because the present could change position and embark upon a furry of kinetic response from a slight push, The White Face is inherently interactive. In this way, Calder incorporates so many disparate elements into his work—humor, absurdity, a viewer’s personal relationship to the piece—that he creates something new for everyone. Perhaps this is his most lasting enchantment.

    Yet Calder also leaves us clues that further pique our curiosity. Along with his mystical cutouts in the shape of his suspended figures, he also leaves us with a title that both confounds us and inspires us to wonder beyond the purely visual element of the piece. Presumably, The White Face refers to the three shapes cut out from Calder’s single white disc, a mask that floats over us, a palindrome face. But taken as a whole, Calder’s mobile also forms an enormous grin, with black eyes and a crimson mouth. The geometric forms and colors remind the observer of an earlier time, when the influence of cubists and futurists was ripe with inklings of the mask work of Africa. Calder often admired the industry of primitive artists, likening his own to theirs: “They did not search for exotic and precious materials. It was their knowledge and invention which gave value to the result of their labor.”(Calder, from a 1943 interview with JJ Sweeney, Alexander Calder, New York, p. 20)

    Calder was certainly reflecting on the many stages of his long and prolific career by 1969, and it is likely that we may find whichever influence we choose in his work. But, in terms of the definite correlative meanings of his floating shapes and figures, they are as whimsical and indefinite as the positioning of The White Face. When Jean-Paul Satre received a small mobile as a gift from Calder in 1946, he could not help but marvel at the wealth of meaning he derived from such a tiny sculpture: he found captivating the “lyrical inventions, technical combinations of an almost mathematical quality, and sensitive symbols of Nature, of that profligate Nature which squanders pollen while unloosing a fight of a thousand butterflies; of that inscrutable Nature which refuses to reveal to us whether it is a blind succession of causes and effects, or the timid, hesitant, groping development of an idea” (J. Sartre, ‘The Mobiles of Calder’, Alexander Calder, New York, 1947).

    Calder’s work can bring an existentialist to the edge of speechlessness, while simultaneously entrancing a child with a wordless dance of shapes based upon the sun, the moon, and the stars. The White Face, 1969 is one of Calder’s fully mature works—a piece steeped in its own history yet just as revolutionary as any his legendary oeuvre.

  • Artist Biography

    Alexander Calder

    American • 1898 - 1976

    Alexander Calder is best known for his creation of the mobile. He employed materials such as wire and sheet metal and transformed them into delicate forms that respond to the wind or float in air. Born into a family of artists, Calder created art from childhood and moved to Paris in 1926, where he became a pioneer of the international avant-garde. In addition to his mobiles, Calder produced an array of public artworks worldwide as well as drawings, paintings, jewelry, prints, and textiles, among others. Calder was born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania.

    View More Works


The White Face

hanging mobile, painted sheet metal, rod, wire
overall 22 x 114 x 53 in. (55.9 x 289.6 x 134.6 cm.)
Initialed and dated “CA ‘69” on the surface of the largest black element. This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation under application number A03827.

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
[email protected]
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 16 May 2013 7pm