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Noir, bleu, rouge
  • Artist Alexander Calder (American, 1898 - 1976)
  • TitleNoir, bleu, rouge
  • Dating 1954
  • Technique/MaterialPainted metal
  • AcquisitionPurchase, 1962
  • CategorySculpture
  • Inventory NumberSk 0473
  • Rights and ReproductionAlexander Calder/BUS 2014©
  • Display StatusNot shown in the museum
Signatures etc.
Few artists have left such a mark on modern sculpture as the American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976). He is famed for his mobiles, whose suspended, abstract elements move and balance in ever changing harmony. Calder was one of the pioneers in creating these new objects, his interest in movement having been awakened by the circus, where trapeze artists seemed to overcome gravity effortlessly.

Calder grew up in a family which for generations had produced professional artists—his father and grandfather were both sculptors and modern painters. From an early age he was encouraged to pursue his own creativity, and in his childhood he travelled much of the US with his family in connection with his father’s various public commissions. From the age of eight, he had his own workshop wherever the family lived. After college, he first read engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, but after a few years hopping between jobs he decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

Calder enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, earning his keep by working as a freelance illustrator. It was when he was working for the National Police Gazette that he spent two weeks at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which gave him a lifelong fascination with the circus. He was drawn by the fluid poetry of the acrobats’ performances, and tried to capture it in closely drawn line drawings.

The unbroken line, which characterized his early drawings, became the dominant stylistic element in his art. Soon, he began translating his two-dimensional lines into wire formations where a few bends and some choice detail created the contours of sculptural works. Calder began work on his own Cirque Calder in 1926. Armed with steel wire, wood, cloth, and paper, he gave full rein to his playful imaginings of all the characters in a circus: animals, tightrope walkers, acrobats, clowns. All his sculptures had moveable parts, often manipulated by Calder himself when he put on his circus shows for artist friends and colleagues.

It was in 1926 that Calder left the US for France and Paris. His encounter with the European avant-garde in general, and with several leading intellectuals and artists such as Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Antoine Pevsner, Jules Pascin, and Marcel Duchamp in person, was to be a catalyst for his continued artistic development. He described a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio, which was both momentous and crucial to his adoption of the abstract, recording that »That one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had often heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract’. So now at thirty-two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.« Shortly thereafter Calder made his first abstract, kinetic sculptures—constructions that in time he was to refine and develop into the artworks that Duchamp termed »mobiles«. Calder was invited in 1931 to join forces with Abstraction–Création, an artists’ group with Constructivist and non-figurative interests that existed to promote innovative, abstract art.

Calder’s Noir, bleu, rouge (1954) is made up of different sections of wire and thin metal plates in red with occasional touches of black and blue. Calder’s mobiles are set in motion by the air currents in a room, and are often so sensitive that the heat given off by the viewer is enough to set them in motion. Each mobile is a delicate balanced composition, which when activated offers a poetic choreography, captivating the viewer with the patterns it creates. They not only execute a single motion that eventually ebbs away, but almost always glide silently through a series of transitions in a fluid process that gradually shifts the centre of gravity of the piece. As for form, the elements Calder liked to use were often organic and inspired by Native American imagery: wings, stars, moons, and waves, all coloured black or white with contrasting accents in red, blue, and yellow. Alongside his mobiles, Calder began to experiment with static, abstract constructions.

During the war, his access to materials was limited, but in the 1950s he was able to scale up his work, later emerging in the public sphere with his »stabiles«. Like the mobiles, stabiles got their name from one of Calder’s fellow artists, in this case Jean Arp. These monumental, earthbound sculptures consist of bonded metal plates with large cut-out openings. Their close kinship to the mobiles is plain from both their colour and materials, but instead of the mobiles’ soft, organic shapes, Calder went for a far greater rigidity in both form and expression. The metal plates were assembled at different angles and bolted together. The stabiles conceal nothing of the working process, but positively capitalize on the rougher, mechanical aesthetic. With their relentless forms and forceful colours they dominate their urban spaces.

Calder was gaining international attention as early as the 1930s, but his big breakthrough came only after the war. As one of the first American Modernists, he was hailed as an innovator in the arts, and he inspired artists in both the US and in Europe with his unceasing exploration of sculpture’s possibilities. Among his monumental public commissions, La Spirale for UNESCO in Paris (1958), El Sol Rojo for Mexico City (1968), and Flamingo for the Federal Plaza in Chicago (1973) stand out.

For several years, Alexander Calder’s monumental The Three Wings stood in Götaplatsen in front of the Gothenburg Museum of Art. The sculpture, which is from City of Gothenburg’s art collection, was moved in 1979 to Blå stället, a cultural centre north-east of the city.

Anna Hyltze from The Collection Gothenburg Museum of Art, Gothenburg 2014