The Flight of Tradition: Calder’s Work in Bronze

I feel that the artist should go about his work simply, with great respect for his materials… Sculptors of all places and climates have used what came readily to hand . . . It was their knowl­edge and invention which gave value to the result of their labors . . . Simplicity of equipment and an adventurous spirit of attacking the unfamiliar or unknown are more apt to result in a primitive, rather than decadent, art.

— Alexander Calder


Alexander Calder consistently worked across a variety of artistic disciplines and in disparate materials, moving fluidly among painting, drawing, and sculpture through­out his career. Undoubtedly, Calder is best known for his innovations in three-dimensional and kinetic art; his name is practically synonymous with the genre he invented — the gravity-defying mobile — which, in turn, is associated with buoyancy and motion. This is the mate­rial and conceptual nature of what has become known as Calder’s most iconic work. Yet twice during his lengthy, prolific, and wide-ranging career, Calder turned to what might be considered, from an art-historical perspective, traditional sculptural materials. In 1930, Calder made more than a dozen small (less than a foot tall) plasters while he was living in Paris, many of which were cast in bronze at the Fonderie Valsuani. In 1944, he returned to the medium and made more than three dozen plasters on a larger scale, about twenty of which were cast in New York.

While these sculptures appear uncharacteristically weighty and solid, they can be also radically dynamic. For example, with only a light touch, The Helices (no. 24) moves in a sensuous rhythm. This abstract bronze consists of three parts: a base resembling a candlestick supporting double counter-spiraling helixes, two bronze lassoes — unattached to the central figure — resting one atop the other. The clockwise and counterclockwise movements of the two spiraling ele­ments resemble an embrace-like dance, with the larger element orbiting the smaller one. Suddenly the move­ment of The Helices conjures, in three dimensions, Henri Matisse’s La Danse (1909).

Still this spectacle, this precarious feat of balance, appears as if it could be upset — indeed collapse — at any moment. Achieving perfect ?t and balance with individu­ally cast bronze elements requires tremendous technical skill. In Calder’s dexterous hands, the lightness of motion pervades even bronze sculpture. And yet remarkably, given how extensively Calder’s work has been exhibited and the degree to which art historians have explored his life and career, his work in bronze is rarely seen publicly. To begin to understand these little-known works, it is necessary to consider them within the context of the years 1930 and 1944.

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