Alexander Calder - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips
  • "But you are here for the circus today." 
    —Alexander Calder

    From Parisian salons and Park Avenue parlors, to the storied collection of prominent New York gallerist Ruth O’Hara, Alexander Calder’s Aerialist captures the unique trajectory of one of the most important American modern artists. Created circa 1926-1931, this early work belongs to the artist’s legendary Circus series created during the artist’s interwar sojourn in Paris. Comprised of a miniature troupe of figures, animals and objects, the so-called Cirque Calder represents the artist’s first major body of work. A rare example from this series to come to auction, Aerialist presents itself as a delicate wire figure gracefully soaring through the air– showcasing not only Calder’s mechanical prowess, sense of playfulness and pioneering imagination, but importantly exemplifies his interest in movement and drawing in space that would become the defining characteristic of his art from the 1930s onwards. Arguably one of Calder’s most beloved works, a major Circus installation is notably in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


    Alexander Calder, Calder's Circus, 1926–1931. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Artwork © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Cirque Calder


    It was in the heady climate of 1920s Paris that Calder developed his artistic sensibility. A young engineer who decided to pursue a career as an artist, Calder had enrolled at the Art Students League in New York before moving to Paris in 1926. Soon after arriving in Montparnasse, Calder embarked upon his first major body of work that reflected his lifelong fascination with the circus: crafting lilliputian figures and props from simple, easily readily materials such as wood, wire, metal, cloth and cork, he summoned an imaginative universe comprised of animals, clowns and acrobats such as Aerialist, which he would activate in his legendary performances.
    Calder’s Circus, or Cirque Calder as it was known in France, served as a favorite pastime of Paris’ cultural luminaries during the 1920s. Often the main event of parties held in the apartments of the Parisian avant-garde, the circus attracted the leading writers and artists of the day, from Jean Cocteau to Joan Miró.  Calder’s show originally began on a small scale, comprising only two valises worth of equipment, but quickly expanded to meet the artist’s characteristic ambitions and soon filled five. “Ringmaster Calder” transported his act from one party to the next headlining the night’s festivities, eventually bringing the show with him to New York. 


    Suitcase filled with elements from Calder’s Circus. © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo Sheldan C. Collins, Artwork © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


As in Paris, Calder staged shows for a veritable who’s who of the city’s cultural cognoscenti, often enlisting the help of friend Isamu Noguchi to man the Victrola for the night’s festivities, for crowds that included writer Tom Wolfe and many others. Famously gregarious and theatrical in nature, Calder loved his performances so dearly that he even put on a show the night before his own wedding; when the reverend, who married the artist and his wife, apologized for missing the festivities the night before, Calder is reported to have responded “But you are here for the circus today.”


    Drawing in Space


    Calder’s fascination for the circus, a theme that would continue to appear throughout his career, also shows itself in such drawings as Lion Cage, circa 1931, from the collection of Ruth O’Hara. Seen together, these works demonstrate the remarkable economy of line with which Calder was able to render form. Indeed, Calder’s early work, especially the Circus installation, can be seen to set many of the principles and concepts that would inform his groundbreaking sculptural practice just years later. As James Johnson Sweeney, famed curator and frequent spectator of the Cirque Calder, indeed remarked, “Calder’s miniature circus was to serve as a laboratory in which some of the most original features of his later work were to be developed.”i
    Circus in many ways certainly served as a laboratory for his larger-scale wire sculptures which debuted at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1928, his first ever solo gallery show, and, when exhibited at the Galerie Billiet-Pierre Vorms in Paris a year later, prompted a critic to famously refer to his unprecedented sculpture in terms of “drawing in space.”
    If Calder had arrived in Paris aspiring to be a painter, by the time he left in 1933 he had become a defining force in modern abstract sculpture– having, in the fall of 1931, created his first truly kinetic sculptures that Marcel Duchamp dubbed “mobiles.” While Calder’s 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio was a significant turning point for his path to abstraction, his early sculptural practice served as an important foundation. Aerialist, envisioned by Calder to be activated by performance and quivering with the potentiality of motion as it balances on a tightrope, encapsulates the kineticism that would come to define Calder’s pioneering mobiles. In it, one recognizes the buoyant elegance, the drama but also playfulness, that Calder cultivated throughout his celebrated career.


    Alexander Calder Performs His "Circus"


    i James Johnson Sweeney, quoted in Jean Lipman, Calder’s Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1976, p. 63. 

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Private Collection
      Ruth O'Hara, New York (acquired from the in 2007)

    • Exhibited

      New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933, October 16, 2008–February 15, 2009, pl. 151, p. 280 (illustrated, p. 164); then traveled as Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Alexander Calder: Les années parisiennes, 1926-1933, March 18–July 20, 2009, no. 50, p. 406 (illustrated, p. 227)
      New York, James Goodman Gallery, Calder: Space in Play, October 22–December 19, 2014
      London, Tate Modern, Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, November 11, 2015–April 3, 2016, p. 228 (illustrated, p. 98)
      Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor, September 21, 2018–August 4, 2019, no. 81, p. 229 (illustrated, p. 68 )

    • Literature

      Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933, exh. cat, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2008, no. 151, p. 164

    • 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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Property from the Estate of Ruth O’Hara



wood, wire, leather, cloth, lead, and string
13 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (34.3 x 14 x 3.8 cm)
Executed circa 1926-1931, this work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A23043.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $302,400

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021