Calder Foundation
1937–1945 Public Commissions and the War

In 1937, Calder completed Devil Fish, his first stabile enlarged from a model. He received two important commissions: Mercury Fountain for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair and Lobster Trap and Fish Tail for the main stairwell of the new Museum of Modern Art building in New York in 1939. His first retrospective was held in 1938 at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. Another retrospective followed in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp. Calder was the youngest artist ever to whom the museum had dedicated a full-career survey, which was so popular that it was extended into 1944.

1937

23 February–13 March

Calder’s first large-scale bolted stabiles, Devil Fish and Big Bird, are on view in “Calder: Stabiles & Mobiles” at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.

CF, exhibition file
Installation photograph, Calder: Stabiles & Mobiles, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1937
Photograph by Herbert Matter

May

Calder and Miró visit the Spanish pavilion under construction at the 1937 World’s Fair site in Paris. Calder meets the pavilion’s architects, Josép Lluís Sert and Luis Lacasa. Sert eventually commissions Calder to make Mercury Fountain for the Spanish pavilion. Mined in Almadén in

Spain, the mercury symbolizes Republican resistance to fascism.

Calder 1966, 158; Freedberg 1986, 504–505
Calder with Mercury Fountain in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, July 1937
Photograph by Hugo P. Herdeg

July

The Calders rent a house in Varengeville at 50 le Clos du Timbre, where Calder uses the garage as his studio. Jean Hélion, who had been to London a few years before, had put me in contact with John and Myfanwy Piper and Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and we lost no

time in inviting the Pipers and the Nicholsons, separately, of course. Other visitors to the house include Georges Braque, Pierre Loeb, Miró, the Nelsons, and cultural theorist Herbert Read.

Calder 1966, 162–63
Calder with Dolores (1937)
Calder with Dolores, Pilar, and Joan Miró, Varengeville, summer 1937Photograph by Hans Hartung © Hans Hartung / ADAGP, Paris
Calder with Dolores, Pilar, and Joan Miró, Varengeville, summer 1937
Photograph by Hans Hartung

1–24 December

The Mayor Gallery, London, exhibits “Calder: Mobiles and Stabiles.”

CF, exhibition file

11 December

A review of the exhibition at the Mayor Gallery notes,

Calder’s jewelry is as pretty as his mobiles—some of it too is “mobile”—and often more seriously lovely. If the lady of fashion has the wit to see it, she may find that pieces of human ingenuity make rather more distinguished ornaments than Cartier’s portable currency.

CF, exhibition file; New Statesman and Nation, 11 December
1938

October

Calder begins construction of a large studio on the old dairy barn foundations in Roxbury. Soon after, he converts his icehouse studio into a living space that comes to be known as the “Big Room.”

Calder 1966, 169–70

8–27 November

Calder’s first retrospective, “Calder Mobiles,” is presented by the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery, Springfield, Massachusetts. Sweeney writes a foreword to the catalogue. Aalto, Léger, architectural historian Siegfried Giedion, and art patron Katherine S. Dreier attend the

opening. Sixty-one pieces of jewelry are included in the exhibition.

CF, exhibition file
1939

Calder is commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to make Lobster Trap and Fish Tail, a mobile he installs in the principal stairwell of the museum’s new building on West Fifty-third Street.

Lipman 1976, 332; Marter 1991, 197
Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1949)
Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1949Photograph by Soichi Sunami © Museum of Modern Art, Soichi Sunami
Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1949
Photograph by Soichi Sunami

Calder is invited to make sculptures for an African habitat designed by Oscar Nitzschke for the Bronx Zoo. Calder conceives of treelike sculptures to be made in steel so they can withstand the abuse of the wild animals. Although the habitat is never realized, Calder creates five

models for the project: Sphere Pierced by Cylinders, Hollow Egg, Four Leaves and Three Petals, Leaves and Tripod, and The Hairpins.

New York Times, 24 October

Spring

Calder creates six maquettes to complement architect Percival Goodman’s design for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art Architectural Competition, sponsored by the Smithsonian Gallery of Art Commission. Goodman is awarded second place to Eliel Saarinen, and the

project goes unrealized.

CF, Calder to Matisse, 3 May 1942

After 1 March

Calder is commissioned by Wallace K. Harrison and André Fouilhoux, architects of Consolidated Edison’s pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, to design a “water ballet” for the building’s fountain. Although water jets are installed around the pavilion, this ballet is never

executed.

Calder 1966, 176

25 May

The Calders’ second daughter, Mary, is born.

Calder 1966, 174
The Calder Family (1939)
The Calder Family, New York, 1939Photograph by Herbert Matter © Calder Foundation, New York
The Calder Family, New York, 1939
Photograph by Herbert Matter
1940

14 May–1 June

Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, presents “Calder.”

CF, exhibition file
Installation photograph showing Black Beast, Calder, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1940
Photograph by Herbert Matter

3–25 December

Calder Jewelry” is presented at Willard Gallery, New York. In her press release for the show, Willard writes,

These works of art are savage and deliberate and self-confidently sophisticated . . . This is a master modern artist’s contribution to the history of fashion. For a world already in chains it is superb stuff.

CF, exhibition file

Harrison commissions Calder to make a mobile for the Hotel Avila Ballroom, Caracas, Venezuela.

CF, project file
1941

April

Herbert Matter photographs Calder’s Roxbury studio.

CF, photography file

27 May–14 June

“Alexander Calder: Recent Works” is held at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.

CF, exhibition file

9 August

Calder performs Cirque Calder in Roxbury.

CF, object file

November

Tanguy and Kay Sage, the Surrealist painters, rent a home from their friend Hugh Chisholm in nearby Woodbury, Connecticut, and become close friends of the Calders. Rose and André Masson live in nearby New Preston.

Suther 1997, 106
1942

3 March

Calder is commissioned to make Red Petals for the Arts Club of Chicago.

Calder 1966, 185–86; CF, Rue Shaw to Calder, 3 March
Red Petals (1942)
Red Petals, Arts Club of Chicago, 1942Photograph by Frederick O. Bemm
Red Petals, Arts Club of Chicago, 1942Photograph by Frederick O. Bemm

7–28 March

Sculptures by Calder and paintings by Miró are exhibited at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

CF, exhibition file

July–November

Calder is classified 1-A (top eligibility) by the army, though he is never drafted. He studies industrial camouflage at New York University and applies for a commission in camouflage work with the Marine Corps: Although the army says that the painter is of little or no use in modern

camouflage, I feel that this is not so, and that the camoufleur is still a painter, but on an immense scale . . . and in a negative sense (for instead of creating, he demolishes a picture and reduces it to nil . . . ).

Calder 1966, 183; CF, Calder application to the Marine Corps, 21 September
1943
Vertical Constellation with Bomb (1943)
Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943Photograph by Herbert Matter © Calder Foundation, New York
Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943
Photograph by Herbert Matter
Wall Constellation with Row of Objects (1943)
Wall Constellation with Row of Objects, 1943Photograph by Herbert Matter © Calder Foundation, New York
Wall Constellation with Row of Objects, 1943
Photograph by Herbert Matter
Constellation with Quadrilateral (1943)
Constellation with Quadrilateral, 1943Photograph by Herbert Matter © Calder Foundation, New York
Constellation with Quadrilateral, 1943
Photograph by Herbert Matter

Winter

Calder works on a new open form of sculpture made of carved wood and wire. They had a suggestion of some kind of cosmic nuclear gases—which I won’t try to explain. I was interested in the extremely delicate, open composition. Sweeney and Duchamp propose the name “constellations” for

these works, seven of which will be included in the artist’s upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Calder 1966, 179; Arnason and Mulas 1971, 202; CF, exhibition file

28 May–6 July

“17 Mobiles by Alexander Calder” is held at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts. The catalogue contains a statement by Calder.

Calder 1943, 6

28 August

Calder writes to Sweeney about his forthcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I forgot to show you this object. One swings the red (iron) ball in a small circle—this movement and the inertia of the rod and the length of thread develops a very complicated pattern of movement. The impedimenta—boxes, cymbal, bottles, cans etc. add to the complication, and also add sounds of thuds, crashes, etc.—This is a reconstruction of one I had in Paris in ’33. I will bring it down and set it up for you to see. I call it the “Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere.”

CF, Calder to Sweeney, 28 August

20 September

Arnold Newman photographs Calder at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

CF, photography file
Calder with Eucalyptus (1940) at Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943
Photograph by Arnold Newman

29 September 1943–16 January 1944

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents “Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions,” curated by Sweeney and Duchamp. Calder writes, Simplicity of equipment and an adventurous spirit in attacking the unfamiliar or unknown are apt to result in a primitive and

vigorous art. Somehow the primitive is usually much stronger than art in which technique and flourish abound. Originally scheduled to close on 28 November 1943, the exhibition is extended to 16 January 1944 due to public demand.

 

CF, exhibition file
Installation photograph, Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943
Photograph by Soichi Sunami

4 December

Both the “Big Room” and part of the Roxbury farmhouse are destroyed by an electrical fire. Louisa tells Calder about the fire when he joins them on 7 December.

What was destroyed was the icehouse, my original workshop, where the electricity had probably shorted, and the woodshed and a corner of the bathroom. The toilet, which was of china, had exploded. It must have been a dreary business for Louisa and Malcolm to drag all they could save to my new shop—this seemed to fill it completely when I got there. Gone were the unencumbered spaces.

Calder 1966, 186; NL, Calder to Shaw, 14 December
1944

Agnes Rindge Claflin writes and narrates Alexander Calder: Sculpture and Constructions, a film based on the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Cinematography is by Matter.

CF, project file

Before 3 April

Calder makes the acquaintance of Keith Warner, owner of a leather manufacturing company and already a patron of several artists. He also becomes a devoted supporter of Calder. Until his death in 1959, Warner commissions dozens of works by Calder, including at least ten

works of jewelry for his wife, Edna. Among these are some substantial pieces fashioned from gold.

CF, Warner correspondence
1945

6 January

Calder’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder, dies in Brooklyn. Calder and Louisa leave their daughters in the care of the Massons and bury Stirling in Philadelphia.

ASCR conversation with Mary Calder Rower, 16 November 1997

1 June

Commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to make a work for the sculpture garden, Calder creates Man-Eater with Pennants.

CF, Calder to Warner, 1 June

Before 3 July

Calder produces a series of small-scale works, many from scraps trimmed during the making of other objects. Let’s mail these little objects to [Louis] Carré, in Paris, and have a show, Duchamp suggests when he sees them; by taking advantage of the newly available international

airmail system, Duchamp’s action predates “mail art” by nearly two decades. Carré responds to Duchamp’s proposal. Interested show Calder miniatures would also gladly exhibit mobile sculptures available all sizes and colours.

Calder 1966, 188; CF, Carré to Duchamp; CF, Duchamp to Calder, 3 July
 
Next timeline
1946–1952 International Distinction

Calder had a major show in 1946 at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a seminal essay. He designed sets and costumes for a number of theatrical performances and designed a huge acoustic ceiling for the Aula Magna auditorium at Universidad Central de Venezuela. In 1952, Calder represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, winning the grand prize for sculpture.