Alexander Calder - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • A perennially shifting arabesque in space, Plutôt jaune exemplifies the motion, dynamism, and ephemerality that composed Alexander Calder’s revolutionary contributions to modernist sculpture. Changes in air currents or viewers’ movements propel the elegant gyration of seven biomorphic elements painted in bold primary hues—“mostly yellow,” as the title describes in French. Perhaps a nod to the artist’s earlier years spent living and working in Paris, Plutôt jaune was executed in 1965 amid major celebrations of his career on both sides of the Atlantic. A version of Calder’s monumental retrospective, which was billed as “the largest assemblage ever presented of the works of a living artist” when it had originally been staged in 1964 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, had just travelled to the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris. Created during an ebullient moment of acclaim in the two art hubs that had informed Calder’s approach, Plutôt jaune is a mature example of the exquisite union of poetry and physics that epitomized the artist’s iconic hanging “mobiles.”


    Despite its seemingly whimsical and weightless character, Plutôt jaune is a remarkably precise and cleverly arranged construction: the pieces of sheet metal, suspended only by a thin wire, are held in a precarious balance by air currents and forces of gravity. These kinetic achievements suggest Calder’s beginnings in math and science, which saw the mechanical engineering graduate work as a draughtsman and hydraulic designer for New York Edison. Indeed, once transfixed by the artist’s 1934 sculpture A Universe, Albert Einstein once expressed, “I wish I had thought of that.” 

    "Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions."
    —Alexander Calder

    Formidable figures in two disciplines that may appear entirely disparate, Calder and Einstein similarly explored abstract conceptualizations of the cosmos during the 20th century—visions which are palpable in Plutôt jaune’s evocation of ethereal planets hovering in a solar system. “The lyricism of [the mobiles] has everything to do with Calder’s genius for turning to art’s advantage an investigation of the nature of the world generally believed to be the purview of physics, a way of seeing inaugurated not by artists but by the primary texts of Euclid and Isaac Newton,” according to art critic Jed Perl. “Calder, although not a scientist in any traditional sense, was moved by a desire, common among early 20th century thinkers, to see the poetry of everyday life as shaped by heretofore invisible principles and laws.”


    [left] Piet Mondrian, New York City, 1942. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Image: © CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
    [right] Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY 


    The effervescent dynamism that animates Plutôt jaune can be traced back to the prancing sword-swallowers, lions, and trapeze-artists of his elaborate performance-diorama titled Cirque Calder, 1926-1931, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. During the same time that the artist initially incorporated movement into his works, he was introduced to the potentiality of abstraction during a fabled visit he took to the studio of Piet Mondrian in 1930. “It was a very exciting room,” Calder recalled. “Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard... I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate.”iii Calder credited this formative experience with the launch of abstraction in his own work; moving beyond Mondrian’s painterly kineticism, he began experimenting with setting his biomorphic forms in motion. One day in 1931, when Marcel Duchamp toured Calder’s studio to see his latest work, the Dadaist dubbed an early iteration of his motive sculptures a “mobile.” The epithet stuck, and thus was the birth of an internationally-recognized hallmark of Calder’s oeuvre, one that is firmly entrenched in the lexicon of modern art history.

    [Their] marvelous swan-like nobility make Calder’s mobiles strange creatures, mid-way between matter and life….His mobiles are at once lyrical inventions, technical, almost mathematical combinations and the tangible symbol of Nature."
    —Jean-Paul Sartre

    Highlighting the rhythm of the universe, Calder liberated sculpture from the constraints of inertia and the pedestal. Plutôt jaune manifests the artist’s pioneering approach as a pronounced visual statement, foregrounding the liveliest color of his palette on a larger scale than his earlier sculptures allowed. Despite its aesthetic boldness, it is—like Calder’s other mobiles—a lyrical reverie of the natural world, emulating the effect of crashing waves or wind blowing through a tree. “A general destiny of movement is sketched for them, and then they are left to work it out for themselves,” Jean-Paul Sartre poeticized of these iconic structures. “A mobile is… like the sea, and casts a spell like it: forever rebeginning, forever new.”iv  

    i Albert Einstein, quoted in Stephanie Barron, “Time, Space, and Moving Forms: Alexander Calder—Beyond the Beautiful,” in Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013, p. 10.
    ii Jed Perl, “Sensibility and Science,” in Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013, p. 41.
    iii Alexander Calder, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, New York, 1966, p. 113.
    iv Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Mobiles of Calder,” Alexander Calder, New York, 1947.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Maeght, Paris
      Odette Valabregue Wurzburger, Cleveland (acquired from the above)
      Sotheby's, New York, November 12, 2008, lot 144
      Private Collection, San Francisco (acquired at the above sale)
      Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 2013, lot 127
      Private Collection, New York (acquired at the above sale)
      Martin Lawrence Galleries, San Francisco
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2017

    • Exhibited

      San Francisco, Weinstein Gallery, Surrealism: New Worlds, December 10, 2011–January 28, 2012, p. 22 (illustrated, p. 23)

    • 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 of an Esteemed Private Collector


Plutôt jaune

signed with the artist's monogram and date "CA 65" on the outermost yellow element
sheet metal, wire and paint
28 1/2 x 46 x 32 1/2 in. (72.4 x 116.8 x 82.6 cm)
Executed in 1965, this work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A14002.

Full Cataloguing

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,482,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022