Published: February 19, 2008
Best known for his sculptural mobiles and stabiles, Alexander Calder (1898‱976) was also a prolific, skilled maker of objets d’art, especially jewelry. During his lifetime he created some 1,800 bracelets, brooches, earrings, necklaces, pins, rings and tiaras made of brass, gold, silver and steel, often embellished with found objects like glass and wood. These diminutive, avant-garde creations were attuned to the aesthetics of the modern age, but they remained personal and idiosyncratic †unmistakably Calder. His jewelry has the same linear yet three-dimensional quality as his famous sculptures; their parts were hammered, shaped and composed in the same way.
“Calder Jewelry,” on view at the Norton Museum of Art through June 15, is organized by the Norton and the Calder Foundation. It is the first museum exhibition focused solely on the artist’s extensive output of characteristically inventive, whimsical jewelry. The display of about 100 works, plus several notebooks of working drawings, documents the extent to which Calder’s jewelry has the same dynamic and dimensional qualities as his revolutionary mobiles.
Far from conventional pieces, “Calder’s jewelry may be most appropriately be defined as ornaments for the body,” observes Jane Adlin, associate curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of Nineteenth Century, Modern and contemporary art. His pieces, she writes in the exhibition catalog, “have more in common with&⁛ornaments] made by ancient cultures than jewelry in the traditional sense of Western gem wear.”
“To Alexander Calder, each piece of jewelry was a work of sculptural art,” observes Norton Museum director Christina Orr-Cahall. “His inventive jewelry techniques echoed those used for his world-famous sculptures.”
Raised in Philadelphia, Calder was the son and grandson of distinguished sculptors. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, created solid classical sculpture, notably the giant bronze of William Penn atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, sculpted beaux-art works, including the Swann Memorial Fountain in Philadelphia’s Logan Circle.
Alexander Calder began making objects like clay elephants at a tender age. At 8, he fabricated necklaces and other trinkets for his sister’s dolls, using beads and discarded copper electrical wire. At 11, he snipped and folded thin sheets of brass into a miniature dog and duck as Christmas presents for his parents.
After studying mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, advancing his skills as an inventor and builder, Calder decided he wanted to be an artist and enrolled at the Art Students League. His first paintings, urban streetscapes, were in the somber style of his teacher, John Sloan. In 1926, after working for a time as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers, he moved to Paris.
There he became a celebrity in European avant-garde circles for his imaginative wire sculptures and performances of his miniature, handcrafted “Cirque Calder.” His “circus,” featuring cranks, wheels and other moving parts made of wire, fabric and miscellaneous ephemeral materials, melded his engineering training with his talent for artistic design and his irrepressible sense of humor †qualities that characterized his work throughout his career. “I think best in wire,” said Calder, who proceeded to make works in that material alone, including evocative portraits of Calvin Coolidge and Josephine Baker.
Modernist titans Duchamp, Leger, Miro and Mondrian, who flocked to Calder’s studio for circus performances, became his friends and inspirations. Exposure to the abstract shapes on the walls of Mondrian’s studio in 1930 galvanized Calder into making abstract sculptural works. His constructions of wire, sheet metal and wood, which could be set in motion by a hand-cranked device or a small motor, were dubbed “mobiles.” His stationary, freestanding pieces were “stabiles.”
Returning to the United States in 1933, Calder and his wife settled on an 18-acre farm in Roxbury, Conn., and later maintained a place in France. He created large, standing mobiles and stabiles, mounted museum exhibitions and, toward the end of his career, carried out many commissions for large-scale, mainly outdoor public sculptures in this country and Europe.
In the course of his long career, Calder produced a wide range of personal adornments. They included not only jewelry, but shirt studs, metal crowns, ponchos, breastplates and a pair of glasses, replete with bobbing nose, suitable for Groucho Marx.
Calder made remarkable use of nonprecious materials and found objects in his inventive jewelry-making, starting with his avant-garde years in Paris. In the late 1920s, he turned from sculpting with wire to making idiosyncratic jewelry “when virtually no other serious artist of his time would do so,” observes Mark Rosenthal, the Norton’s adjunct curator of contemporary art, in the catalog. “This daring act shows his freedom of thought at an early point in his career, a freedom that became more prevalent after World War II among artists willing to drop the observation of strict categories.”
Calder’s playfully sophisticated jewelry became all the rage among bohemians in Paris and New York. Wearing some of his more brash and revolutionary pieces required a spirit of adventurousness †and a good deal of self-confidence. Mary Rockefeller’s brass Calder necklace with harp and heart motifs that flared at her sides was said to require “a little elbow room at Modern art exhibits.” Avant-garde art patron Peggy Guggenheim not only owned and wore some of his more fantastic ornaments, but commissioned a spectacular headboard for her bedroom in Venice. One witty, early piece made for fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes was a wire chastity belt bearing the French café motto “ouvert la nuit” or “open at night.”
Although Calder made less jewelry after World War II, he continued to attract aficionados of his modern adornments, particularly among the art and theatrical crowd. “The Jealous Husband,” circa 1940, was an audacious, curvilinear brass wire ornament worn by model Anjelica Huston on the cover of The New York Times Magazine .
Over time, Calder supplemented his income by selling his one-of-a-kind jewelry through respected galleries in the United States and Europe. Even though it went against his economic self-interest, Calder predictably rejected all proposals to duplicate his originals, noting that if he followed that course, a buyer “will never know whether he has a thing I have made [myself] or a thing made by someone else.”
Calder’s jewelry adventurously mixed avant-garde ideas with primitive forms and processes. While he picked up concepts from the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, what sets his work apart, contends Adlin, was his “declared preference for the ‘primitive’ both in style and technique.” She adds that while “Calder’s avant-garde creations in brass, gold and silver converged closely with the aesthetics of the modern age&⁴hey remained personal and unmistakably Calder.”
He made ample use of spirals, the ancient symbol of eternity, in “ornaments [that] acknowledged the connection between the maker and his material by retaining the surface hammer marks on the metal,” says Adlin. An example is the nickel silver spiral necklace that appears on the wall of his Paris studio in a 1930 photograph. Similarly, the slim, rough-hewn silver slabs hooked to the circular center of a silver wire bracelet dating to around 1948 bear the hand of the craftsman.
Like many fellow artists, Calder collected African tribal art, which had taken Europe by storm around the turn of the century, and also saw examples in museums. A brass wire necklace, circa 1940, and two circa 1945 bracelets, made of silver and brass wire, respectively, reflect his affinity for African objects.
“Never satisfied with superfluous decoration, Calder used jewelry as an alternative way of communicating his artistic ideals,” observes his grandson and director of the Calder Foundation, Alexander S.C. Rower, in the exhibition catalog.
“He developed a direct process using honest industrial materials, such as brass and steel wire, that he bent, twisted, hammered and riveted in an immediate way. At once primitive and refined, the resulting works show the eccentricities of his hand expressing subtly tactile qualities.”
Early on, Calder incorporated found objects †glass, pottery and stone †into his jewelry. In 1930, he wrapped brass wire around small pieces of ancient blue-glazed pottery, tied them with string and sent the necklace to his mother for her 64th birthday.
Each piece was, for Calder, a unique work made by hand. Many examples went to family and friends, often by incorporating the recipient’s monogram or name into a decorative pattern.
Spanish artist Joan Miro received a brass wire ring enclosing a multicolored porcelain fragment, while for his wife, Pilar, and daughter, Delores, Calder fashioned a gold “P” brooch and a silver “Delores” brooch, respectively. Teeny Matisee Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp’s wife, got a wonderfully imaginative reclining nude belt buckle made of wire. Jeanne Bunuel, wife of Luis Bunuel, received a large, colorful flower brooch made of shards of colored glass and mirror for petals, while the filmmaker got silver cufflinks. Calder fashioned a magical brass necklace that included a stylized inscription of her name for Marc Chagall’s wife.
A principal recipient of Calder’s jewelry was his wife, Louisa James Calder, who received everything from a Calder-made engagement ring to countless gifts of sculptures, drawings, household inventions and jewelry for both everyday wearing and special occasions. One of the most noteworthy objects on view is a circa 1938 necklace consisting of heavy brass wire wrapped around colorful bits of glass and mirrors.
A necklace crafted in 1943 consists of myriad chunks of rough-hewn silver wire fanned out in a loop measuring nearly a foot-and-a-half, bound together with string and a dark red ribbon.
For his wife’s 53rd birthday in 1958, Calder fashioned a small, mesmerizing curvilinear gold and steel wire pin.
During his mature career, jewelry became an integral part of Calder’s sculptural output. As Rosenthal points out, jewelry was not only “a way to bestow gifts&t was central to how Calder made art in every way on a daily basis. Each day he hammered and chiseled small metal objects, then assembled these to create three-dimensional entities, whether for a mobile or a bracelet.”
Calder’s early affinity for machinery, toys, movement and fantasy presaged his interest in Surrealism; his fascination with that movement coincided with his initial forays into jewelry design. Eventually, people wearing an innovative Calder piece became objects of attention, which many Surrealists enjoyed.
Rosenthal notes that the Surrealists’ predilection for plays on words “is repeated in Calder’s initial brooches and inventive manipulation of names of his family members as well as his contemporaries, such as Georgia O’Keeffe.” A photograph of that artist, wearing Calder’s “OK” brooch around 1945, suggests the manner in which a wearer’s body influenced the look of the piece.
While jewelry is traditionally considered “wearable art,” Calder’s witty and ambitious objects were often too big or too unwieldy to be worn in conventional ways. Rosenthal suggests that “Calder’s jewelry may be seen as a sort of Surrealistic strategy to entrap the wearer into participating in an art performance, even to become bewitched.”
Ingenious, unpredictable, accessible and witty, Calder drew on his natural environment and fertile imagination to become not only one of the nation’s best-loved artists, but arguably the greatest and most influential American sculptor of his time. Whether creating a small piece of jewelry or an enormous public sculpture, he never hid the industrial nature of his material. In transforming such materials by means of ingenuity and poetry, he reconciled technology and emotion.
“The genius of Alexander Calder,” says Adlin, “is that there are vast inferences, beautifully nuanced in every piece of his jewelry, yet the work defies classification, evoking a personal response from everyone who sees it.”
This rewarding exhibition documents how Alexander Calder translated his bold creativity into exquisite, playful, memorable pieces of jewelry. They are an added area of achievement for a man who forged new and exciting directions for sculpture of all kinds.
The 288-page catalog is filled with images of Calder’s jewelry and helpful chapters by Rower, Rosenthal and Adlin. Published by Yale University Press in association with the Calder Foundation and the Norton Museum, it sells for $50 hardcover.
“Calder Jewelry” will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (July 12⁏ctober 19); Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 8⁍arch 1, 2009) and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (March 31⁊une 22, 2009).
The Norton Museum of Art is at 1451 South Olive Avenue. For information, 561-832-5196 or www.norton.org .
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