Published: July 25, 2000
HARTFORD, CONN. – The links between sculptor Alexander Calder and the State of Connecticut go back a long way. From the time he settled in his home and studio in Roxbury in 1933 until his death in 1976, Calder – arguably the most influential and most beloved American sculptor of the Twentieth Century – drew on the natural environment, the cultural/intellectual community and the museums of the Nutmeg State for inspiration and support.
The particularly strong ties between the sculptor and Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, one of the nation’s great art museums and a special treasure of the state, make “” a natural for the museum. Calder’s monumental red stabile, “Stegosaurus,” dramatically sited just outside the Atheneum, provides visitors with a hint of pleasures to be encountered within the museum.
The exhibition features over 150 works, including sculptures and maquettes (models); paintings, drawings and prints; and jewelry, textiles and toys, all made in Calder’s Connecticut studio or in state foundries. Adroitly spaced around two floors of galleries,
Curated by the Atheneum’s curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Eric M. Zafran, and bolstered by a fine, highly informative exhibition catalogue, the show does an admirable job of tracing the impact of the Nutmeg State on Calder’s playful yet profound oeuvre. Scouring the state, Zafran and associate curator Cynthia Roman made notable discoveries of Calder letters, drawings, photographs and small objects that, along with many pieces of sculpture from private collections, have never before been seen in public.
“In retrospect,” writes Zafran in the catalogue, “it is clear that not only the textures, colors, materials, and openness of the rural setting [around the sculptor’s Roxbury place] had a marked effect on the development of Calder’s art, but… the array of friends, colleagues and collectors that he came to know in his adopted state also contributed greatly to his progress. The Connecticut component of Calder’s enormous production complements that of the periods he spent in New York and France, but it has not previously been singled out for review.”
The exhibition is sponsored by Lincoln Financial Group, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Connecticut Humanities Council, Lydall, Inc., the Wiremold Foundation, and the Lipman Family Foundation.
Born in Philadelphia, Calder came from solid artistic stock. His mother was a painter and his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, and his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, were well-known sculptors. Contrary to family expectations, he studied mechanical engineering in college, but soon turned to art, studying painting at the Art Students League in New York. He started out painting Ashcan School – like cityscapes.
Visiting Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930, Calder was entranced by the vibrantly colored rectangles arranged on the white walls, and mused about making them into moving pieces. This momentous encounter and his associations with the modernists encouraged Calder to switch from representational to abstract art, with kinetic features.
His initial efforts were abstract moving sculptures powered by little motors, and then, structures with elements that moved by themselves. Duchamp dubbed them “mobiles.” Arp called Calder’s abstract pieces that did not move, “stabiles.”
In 1933, two years after marrying Louisa James, the grand-niece of Henry James, Calder purchased an old farmhouse on 18 acres of land in Roxbury, Conn. Following a fire in 1943, he had the house painted black, his favorite color. After dividing their time between Roxbury and a New York City apartment, in 1947 the Calders decided to live full time in Connecticut.
Calder converted an old icehouse on the property into a studio and later built an immense studio, which was soon cluttered with all manner of sculpture and objects he used in his increasingly original pieces. He often incorporated found objects – glass and pottery fragments, rusty metal, branches – into his innovative sculpture.
Vintage photographs suggest what a fascinating place the new studio became. “The wind, as it blew through the… windows,” writes Calder’s grandson, Alexander S.C. Rower, in the exhibition catalogue, “would stir the mobiles, which collided in an unforgettable cacophony – tinkling, clacking, and crashing, with the occasional boom.”
Responding to the spaciousness of his new setting, Calder began experimenting with outdoor sculpture that combined aspects of weathervanes and rotating colored objects. Before long, the Roxbury site was festooned with larger and larger open-air pieces. “His alternately witty and monumental art often reflects the rolling terrain of Litchfield County (Conn.) and even its flora and climate, from sumac and apple boughs to snow flurries,” observes the Atheneum’s acting director, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, in the catalogue.
In addition to the nature and topography of his adopted state, Calder was stimulated by associations with a wide range of creative and cultural figures around Connecticut, including artists Peter Blum, Arshile Gorky, Andre Masson, Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy, writers Malcolm Cowley and Arthur Miller, collectors Katherine Dreier, Joseph Hirshhorn and James Thrall Soby, and Wadsworth Atheneum director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin. “(H)e drew on and was inspired by the intellectual energy and stimulus of this learned and provocative circle of acquaintances,” says Kornhauser.
Among the interesting sidelights of the show are examples of the gifts of jewelry, mobiles, paintings, drawings and textiles that Calder presented his friends. Standouts include a brass necklace and a wool tapestry.
Austin, with his keen eye for originality and modernism, featured three Calder mobiles in a 1935 exhibition at the Atheneum. When the Wadsworth acquired “Little Blue Panel” (1935), a motorized mobile with revolving parts, after the show closed, it became one of the first Calders to enter a museum collection. Cost: $75!
In further recognition of Calder’s talent and appeal, Austin invited the sculptor to design a mobile stage set for Erik Satie’s symphonic drama, Socrates, as part of the First Hartford Festivale of the Arts in 1936. For Connecticut collector Soby and his friends, Calder designed paper animal costumes for the famous “Paper Ball” that concluded the Festivale.
Two years later, the Atheneum purchased Calder’s “Mantis” (1938), a striking mobile that recreates the long legs and elongated body of a praying mantis. It is “almost the best thing I have done,” the sculptor wrote Austin. Over six decades later, “Mantis” still conveys a whimsical charm.
Examples of Calder’s sprightly letters to Austin, frequently including illustrative sketches, underscore the close bonds between the two and the sculptor’s eager association with the museum. In one, he provided a detailed “code” for properly maintaining “Mantis,” replete with drawings to help explain how to re-string and adjust the piece.
In 1953 the Atheneum organized a major exhibition of Calder’s work, along with that of Connecticut-based Naum Gabo. On view were 32 Calder sculptures and seven paintings. That grand show is dwarfed by the current, expansive display.
In the 1940s Calder produced a series of three-legged pieces holding fanned-out wires and colored metal shapes that established a fascinating balance between mobiles and stabiles. “Autumn Leaves, Red Post” (1941), among others, suggested the rustling of leaves in fall, while “Bougainvillea” (1949) reflected the blooming effects of that flower.
When metal became scarce during World War II, he invented a new type of sculpture made up of bits of wood and metal connected by wires, that he called “Constellations.” Several examples in the exhibition demonstrate how these sculptures could hang on the wall or lie on a flat surface.
In the late 1940s Calder experimented with the use of negative or cutout spaces, in works like “Pomegranate” (1949), an aluminum and steel contraption with delicately balanced black and red tendrils.
“If you can imagine a thing, conjure it up in space – then you can make it,” Calder once said. That conviction animated much of the work for which he is best known.
Numerous works, all delightful, document the extent to which Calder socialized with and created objects for artists and other friends around the state. One wonders how he had time for serious pieces, so prodigious was he in designing witty, often practical, gifts for his many acquaintances.
For his artist friends, Calder often modeled useful, humorous objects, such as ashtrays, bread tins, bells, lamp shades and toys.
Soby, who curated numerous exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art, was among the most fervent of Calder’s private collectors. For his modernized Greek Revival house in Farmington, Soby acquired a number of Calder pieces, including a well-head mobile, a vivid red wall piece, “Swizzle Sticks” (1936), an ingenious series of birds made out of coffee cans (1938), and specially designed silverware. Examples of these objects, as well as many of Soby’s photographs of Calder at work and play, add context and depth to the show.
For businessman and photographer Rufus Stillman and his wife, who lived in a Marcel Breuer-designed house in Litchfield, Calder created a small standing mobile, “The Dragon” (1957), and, as presents, a lively and colorful gouache, “Butterfly, Bird & Snail” (1950s) and a wonderful, wildly-hued rug, dating to 1965.
Calder’s physician in Litchfield, C.H. Huvelle and his wife, with whom he often exchanged social visits, were recipients of several sizeable, personalized gouaches that often seem to mimic mobiles, such as “Plants with Red Spiral” (1968). These and other paintings and works on paper are reminders of the sculptor’s versatility and initial interest in becoming a painter.
A delicate, finely balanced mobile, “The Red Candle” (1968) displayed in the show, is from the collection of Talcott Stanley, a longtime trustee and supporter of the Atheneum. It’s a beauty.
Calder was especially fond of his Roxbury neighbors, playwright Miller and his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, who had known the sculptor in Paris. The two families visited back and forth; at one lively party Calder drew a likeness of his host on a barn wall. That minimalist “Portrait of Arthur Miller” (1972), done in felt tip pen on painted gypsum board, was later removed and is on view, as is a colorful gouache bearing the title of Miller’s play, “The Creation of the World” (1971).
In a moving eulogy at a memorial service for Calder at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1976, Miller recalled the sculptor’s ebullient personality and happy outlook. “When I think of him now, I can’t help smiling,” the writer said. “The sun shone on his life. What he seemed to want most was to see or hear something delightful.”
At first, Miller recalled, he “couldn’t make head or tail” of his friend’s work. He was the light while observing Calder at work in his Roxbury studio. “His hands were so deft and unhesitantly sure. He seemed more like someone at play than an artist. It only slowly dawned on me that this work of cold wire and sheet metal was sensuous, that the ever-shifting relationships within a mobile were refracting the same elemental and paradoxical forces in physics and human relations. Then I could begin to grasp what he seemed to be about…[I]t is from the spaces, the silences in his works that life springs out at us.”
Winning the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale of 1952, where he represented the United States, elevated Calder’s successful international career. The next year he acquired land and established a home and studio in Saché, near Tours, France. He spent more and more time there during the remainder of his life, but each fall the Calders returned to Roxbury for several months. The Saché property is now a site for training sculptors.
Starting in the late 1930s Calder contemplated turning small models of his stabiles – standing abstract pieces – into huge outdoor sculptures. In the 1950s, with Connecticut patrons owning rural properties large enough to handle such works and with relationships established with instate ironworks, he was able to carry out these plans. Photographs document how the grounds around his Roxbury studio and ironworks in Waterbury showcased a changing array of monumental stabiles, most of them awaiting sale.
Segre’s Iron Works in Waterbury became the principal site for transforming Calder’s small aluminum maquettes into towering steel plates and sheets, starting with “La Spirale,” placed on the grounds of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1958.
Another standout work from the 1950s was “Longnose” (1957), installed on the Lipman estate in Cannondale. An expressive maquette is included in the exhibition.
Also represented by a maquette is “Shiva” (1965). The giant, bright red original, 20 feet wide and 17 feet long, was initially sited atop a hillside in Washington, Conn., before being acquired by the Hall Foundation of Kansas City.
Perhaps the most memorable maquette on view is that for “Southern Cross” (1963), which was designed specifically for permanent installation on Calder’s Roxbury property. “As is evident even in the maquette,” Zafran observes in the catalogue, “it is the perfect marriage of stabile and mobile, capturing the play between permanence and flight, mediating between earth and sky, and presenting the artist’s favorite color contrast between black and red. This work stands as Calder’s permanent monument to the landscape of Connecticut.”
The most striking non-sculptural work of the 1970s is the gorgeously hued, abstract wool tapestry, “Raisoir d’avion” (1971), now owned by the Atheneum. Also in the museum’s holdings is an arresting “Poster for Abe Ribicoff” (1974), prepared at the Senator’s request for his reelection campaign.
Long active in social and political issues, Calder was a supporter of Abraham Ribicoff, who served as Governor before his election to the US Senate representing Connecticut. Writing to the artist in France, Ribicoff unblushingly asked for a poster making “a strong, simple graphic statement that reflects boldness and vigor – freshness but with dependability and a sense of direction in troubled times…The ‘Abe’ should come through clearly at a glance.”
Calder responded with a bold image in which vivid blue, orange and yellow backgrounds set off black letters spelling out the Senator’s name. Used for both limited edition prints (an offset lithograph is on display) and posters, the pictures “caused a great deal of excitement and admiration,” Ribicoff reported, and presumably contributed to his successful return to the Senate.
“Stegosaurus” is a fitting coda to an informative and appealing show – and a lasting monument to one of the most delightful and important of all American sculptors. As Kornhauser puts it, “Calder… [left] a rich heritage, one which is by turns elegant, amusing and uplifting.”
Curator Zafran and his colleagues at the Wadsworth Atheneum have done themselves proud with this home state tribute. There is still time to see “” before it closes on August 6.
The fully illustrated, 168-page catalogue was written by Zafran, with sections by Kornhauser and Roman. There is an interesting chapter about the Roxbury home and studio by Rower, director of The Calder Foundation. The text of Miller’s remarks at the Whitney Museum memorial services provides a fitting afterword.
This superb volume will be treasured by Calder buffs, even moreso by those with ties to Connecticut. Published by the Atheneum in association with Rizzoli International Publications, it sells for $40 (hardcover) and $24.95 (softcover).
The Wadsworth Atheneum is at 600 Main Street. For information, 860/278-2670.
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