Alexander Calder - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Perls Galleries, New York
    Dayton’s Gallery 12, Minneapolis
    B.C. Holland, Inc., Chicago
    Sale: New York, Christie’s, New York, Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 13, 2007, lot 46
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New Orleans, The Arts and Crafts Club of Louisiana, Alexander Calder: Mobiles/Jewelry and Fernand Léger: Gouaches/Drawing, March 28 – April 11, 1941
    Minneapolis, Dayton’s Gallery 12, Calder, April 17 – May 11, 1968
    London, Gimpel Fils, Alexander Calder: Large Standing Mobiles, February 18 – March 15, 1969

  • Literature

    Dayton’s Gallery 12, Calder, Minneapolis, 1968 p. 2 (illustrated)
    Gimpel Fils, Alexander Calder: Standing Mobiles, New York, 1969, n.p. (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    I feel an artist should go about his work simply with great respect for his materials…sculptors of all places and climates have used what came ready at hand. They did not search for exotic and precious materials. It was their knowledge and invention which gave value to the result of their labors.

    (Alexander Calder, 1943, “Alexander Calder”, Calder Foundation, New York, 1943 taken from Simplicity of Means: Calder and the Devised Object, New York, 2007).

    Early on in the career of Alexander Calder’s career, before he began to compose some of the most recognizable sculptures of the Twentieth Century, he carried in his suitcase a miniature, functional model of a circus, which he dubbed Cirque Calder. During his years in France (the late 1920s and early 1930s), this particular piece become well-known among the ranks of avant-garde artists in Paris, its many balanced intricacies yet sublimely playful nature a wonderful piece of amusement, and—for many—an awe-inspiring piece of structural engineering. Soon Calder transformed this kind of compact genius into sculptural wonders of great size and similar brilliance in their engineering feats of balance.The Whiffletree, 1936, is from the earliest era of Calder’s freestanding sculptures. As such, it is one of the first works to embody the fully realized talent of one of the most seminal artists of the twentieth century.

    Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Calder’s earliest profession was perhaps an effort against the fate that he seemed so pointedly prescribed. Both his father and grandfather were renowned sculptors, having made art for both public and private commission. Yet his mother, as a painter, dealt with two dimensions that his paternal line lacked in their sculpture: both color and a playful sense of illusion. In the circus, he found these many disparate elements engaged in an elegant dance: flashes of colors floated through space as three dimensional objects, alight with both joy and humor. Eventually abandoning mechanical engineering as a profession, he traveled to Paris, finding the process of toy-making an adventure in both design and psychology: he could create a functional childhood pastime while simultaneously making an object that adults could appreciate for its aesthetic value.

    Additionally, his interests brought him into another realm of art that was a training ground for emerging art of sculpture. Enmeshed in and fascinated by dance in 1920s and 1930’s Paris, Calder designed sets for seminal choreographer Martha Graham and composer Eric Satie. In turn, this joy of movement came to saturate each of his nascent sculptural designs; Calder chose to imbue each of his creations with a spirit of movement and a future of motion. Calder’s early plans for his Mechanical Ballet (an
    early unrealized project of immense proportions) reveal the sense of life that he desired to bequeath his artistic subjects: “Calder allowed his true ambition for theatrical productions to emerge: he wanted to dispense with any action on stage other than that of his animated forms, which would then no longer merely serve as decorative sets or props. Rather, he wanted the presence of his work to replace every other presence, especially live actors and dancers. Calder thus endorsed a course that the avant-garde theater has been pursuing since the 1910s: the actor was depersonalized, mechanized, and, ultimately, replaced by a theatrical mechanism, a ‘performance-machine’” (A. Pierre, “Staging Movement”, Marla Prather, ed., Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, Washington DC, 1998, p. 343).

    We witness the grace and poise of performance machine for which Calder was ultimately aiming in the present lot. The Whiffletree, 1936, is spare in its construction, foregoing the heavy weight of Calder’s later work for a lightness that evokes a wonderful delicacy in its many limbs and legs. On the whole, the piece has the air of something ephemeral, where the viewer could have blinked and the object would glide away in a flash of mechanical grace.

    At its base, the object is three-pronged, its three legs bright red in their perfect symmetry and understated style. A single, slim trunk extends from their apex, allowing the real show to happen six feet above the ground. From the end point of the trunk flow two arms perfectly balanced upon their common point of departure. Though we may not notice it, Calder’s mathematical genius lies in the harmony of the two arms: from their endpoints streams a myriad of lines and shapes, as if Calder’s albatross has chosen to spread its wings. To the right and upwards, a elliptical disc of yellow sits as the sentinel, watching over the smaller black disc to its top right and the more volatile enormity of the red giant below it. Twin white and red discs orbit each other below, suggesting a dynamic of twinned souls, each refusing to budge from its suspended point in space.

    The Whiffletree, 1936, shares formal affinities with two of Calder’s first outdoor commissions. These early works were supported by tripods, providing firm bases from which Calder extended his weightlessly animated discs. It was in December of 1935 that James Thrall Soby commissioned a work to serve as a wellhead. As Soby recalled “…the real point was that the mobile was gay and hypnotic to watch as the outdoor breeze set it in motion.” (James Thrall Soby, My Life in the Art World, 1936, pp. 7-8). On the other side, order rules the day. Two wires stretch vertically and parallel to each other, bending perfectly to the other’s slight curve. At the top end, identical black ellipses mimic each other, their relationship even tighter than their silver and red cousins on the other side of the sculpture’s body. Directly south, two congruent discs of red and yellow hang peacefully together, the third pair of of sculptural kinships in Calder’s marvelous structure. Yet, at the first hint of wind of the slightest shake of an arm, the dynamics of the present morph into a circus of movement, shapes displacing and replacing each other in their suspended reality. At the viewer’s will, The Whiffletree, 1936, assumes the capricious nature of its title, showing as much vibrancy and hilarity as the viewer sees possible.

    Perhaps to call Calder’s spectator a “viewer” would be a misnomer; for, in reality, the viewer is not one who merely observes, but an active participant in the many qualities of Calder’s piece. While he would go on to create sculpture with enormous bases that give a sense of stern groundedness, Calder rarely returned to the form of the present lot: a piece with almost the form of a human being ready to dance, poised for the moment that the music will finally start. The Whiffletree, 1936 stands as the first echo of Calder’s genius, where the union of form and function finally became a marriage of whimsy and wonder.

    Calder’s title refers to the engineering lessons he had learned from these earlier works. A whiffletree being a mechanism that distributes force through linkages that pivot. This device is the single element that allows for the vast array of inventive forms that Calder created to demonstrate such exhilarating motion.

  • Artist Biography

    Alexander Calder

    American • 1898 - 1976

    Alexander Calder worked as an abstract sculptor and has been commonly referred to as the creator of the mobile. He employed industrious materials of wire and metal and transformed them into delicate geometric shapes that respond to the wind or float in air. Born into a family of sculptors, 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 constructions worldwide as well as drawings and paintings that feature the same brand of abstraction. Calder was born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania.

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The Whiffletree

circa 1936
standing mobile, painted sheet metal and wire
overall: 80 x 52 x 42 in. (203.2 x 132 x 106.7 cm)
Initialed with monogram “CA” on the largest red element.

$3,500,000 - 5,500,000 

Sold for $4,002,500

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

15 November 2012
New York