Artist Spotlight: Alexander Calder
One of the most celebrated artists of the twentieth century, Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is most widely remembered for his work in three dimensions as the inventor of mobiles, “stabiles,” and wire “drawings in space.” In 1953, however, a yearlong stay in Aix-en-Provence afforded an established Calder the opportunity to hone his focus on the two-dimensional plane. It was here — first in a house with no electricity, and then in a house alleged to be haunted — that Calder practiced and perfected translating his jubilant sculptures onto paper, and was later able to create such works as Nautilus and Sea Flower (1967). Using his preferred medium of gouache, Calder was able to express themes that defined his kinetic sculpture — fluidity of motion and a distillation of cosmic arrangements.
Nautilus and Sea Flower is exemplary of Calder’s seamless adaptation of his sculptures’ bold geometry, sense of motion, and overall joie de vivre to an alternate medium. A synthesis of geometric forms, the spirals and arabesques dance across space in whimsical strokes and exuberant lines. Calder claimed that the basis of everything he made was the universe; this expansive view is on full symbolic display in Nautilus: a radiating sun/flower, a black dot for earth, cell, and seed, a chambered nautilus of primary colors for the sea and origins, and a dallying curly-cued line for the infinite paths of time and motion.
For Calder, the relationships between cosmic entities amounted to a theory of art — Nautilus and Sea Flower reinforces his investigation of such distinctions through bold color. Black lines against white carry the contrasts of night and day, and in Nautilus are set off by vibrant blue, ochre, and vermillion — the basis for all other colors. An early influence that guided both Calder’s pursuit of abstraction and his affinity for primary colors was a 1930 visit to the studio of Dutch painter Pier Mondrian. Upon seeing the artist’s grids of red, yellow, and blue rectangles, Calder recalled feeling like a “baby being slapped to make his lungs start working.”
The circus also served as inspiration for Calder’s experiments in composition. What existed underneath the tent — arcs of leaping gymnasts, diagonal tightropes, the spherical ring containing the entire spectacle — directly influenced Calder’s two-dimensional abstractions. That the dynamics of the circus might also be spotted within Nautilus, in its ring of fire, trapeze-artist twirls, and vibrant hues, is a testimony to Calder’s uncanny genius for distilling complex motion and universality into simple and deeply pleasurable forms.
Calder Foundation. “Biography.” Accessed September 18, 2020. http://www.calder.org/life/biography Calder Foundation.
“Large-scale developments and inter-continental commissions: 1953-1962.” Accessed September 18, 2020. http://www.calder.org/work/by-life-period/1953-1962 .
Corbett, Rachel. “How Alexander Calder Gave Objects a Life of Their Own.” The Atlantic, May 2020.
Kuh, Katherine. Alexander Calder in The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists. New York and Evanston, Illinois: Harper & Row, 1962.
Nautilus and Sea Flower
Gouache and ink on paper
Signed and dated lower right; retains Perls Galleries label frame verso
Composition/sheet: 22.5” x 30.75”; Frame: 24.625″ x 32.25″ (Composition/sheet: 57 x 78 cm)
Calder Foundation #A05921
Provenance: Perls Galleries, New York, New York; Private Collection, Pasadena, California (acquired directly from the above, 1968); Thence by descent
October 18, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction