ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960

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Lot 6
The Mountain, 1960

Sold for US$ 845,000 inc. premium


The Mountain, 1960
signed with the artist's monogram 'AC' (on the base)
painted sheet metal and wire
17 1/8 x 23 7/8 x 11 5/8in. (43.5 x 60.5 x 29.5cm)


  • Provenance
    Perls Galleries, New York.
    Mena W. Rosenthal, New York.
    Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 27 February 1990, lot 38.
    Private Collection, Philadelphia.
    Russeck Gallery, Philadelphia.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner.

    This work is registered in the archives of The Calder Foundation, New York, under application no. A07951.

    "The idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form."1 - Alexander Calder

    When reduced to his essence Alexander Calder was two things: an artist and an alchemist. He approached materials with the vision and confidence of a builder, but his ability to transform the burdensome to the airy was just short of sorcery. Imbued with a sense of wonder, his work is at once an academic study in abstraction and a celebration of form. The study of kinetics and examining the viewer's ability to sense motion is at the crux of The Mountain (1960). As always, Calder's fundamental concern was to capture natural movement. This work signifies a return to the handcrafted, and to the human-scale. Produced at a decisive moment in which the majority of his creative energy was focused on monumental commissions, The Mountain was surely a welcome adjournment for the artist to create a three dimensional work from beginning to end. An exercise in lyrical density, The Mountain is illustrative of the moment in which it was created in the context of scientific discovery, and to the formative experiences from Calder's past that never ceased to delight and inspire him.

    Alexander Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, to artist parents. His father and grandfather were both Beaux-Arts sculptors and his mother was a professional painter in her own right. They encouraged Calder's early interest in creating and even built him a small workshop. When he was eleven, Calder constructed a duck brass sheet capable of motion and presented the sculpture to his parents as a Christmas gift. The duck sculpture was an early indicator of two motifs that would carry through Calder's entire career: the study of animals and the investigation of the cause of kinetic motion.

    It is the foresight with which Calder approached the duck piece that is more impressive than the product itself. Planning its production, Calder designed the work in its entirety before cutting into the single brass sheet. It was his desire to produce, plan, and methodically approach problems, perhaps, that lead Calder to study engineering. He finished his mechanical engineering degree at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, New Jersey and subsequently took a job at a timber camp in Washington State near his sister's home. Inspired by the mountains and the animal life, it was in Washington that Calder began to paint. Shortly after, he decided to move back East and pursue a formal arts education at the Art Students League of New York. In their French Renaissance building on West 57th Street, Calder studied with Thomas Sloan, among others, and counted Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman as his classmates. Calder's early style at the League was influenced by the realist style of the Ashcan school, making him an ideal candidate for illustration work. As an illustrator for the National Police Gazette, he was tasked with covering the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Calder became enamored with the frantically moving spectacle and the figures interacting within it. He studied and drew animals at the Central Park and Bronx zoos, and even wrote a didactic guide for this practice. For Calder, "it wasn't the daringness of the performance nor the tricks or the gimmicks; it was a fantastic balance in motion that the performers exhibited" which ultimately inspired him.2

    The slowing American economy and the favorable exchange rate presented an auspicious opportunity to leave New York for Europe. In 1926, Calder left the States for Paris, joining the ranks alongside other well-heeled artistic young Americans- a group that included Sara and Gerald Murphy, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary and Ernest Hemingway. While he never abandoned his study of animals, Calder become more interested in producing three dimensional work rather than drawing or painting. During his first year in Paris, Calder fashioned a moving circus out of wire with himself at the helm. The pseudo-performance piece incorporated leather, cloth, and found object elements as well as figurative "wire drawings". Le Cirque Calder (1926-1931) was met with great admiration from the Parisian avant-garde. As an illustrator, Calder had studied the kinetics of the tent and the way the performers and the animals interacted within the space, and the interest in the frenzy of the circus never left him. One might read The Mountain, a much later work, as a cut sliver of a billowing tent with a red and white ribbon blowing in the wind. Although this is an extremely literal interpretation of the sculpture, its formal elements most certainly hearken back to the spectacle of the big top.

    Total immersion into his studio was critical for Calder throughout his life. While living in Paris, he visited Piet Mondrian in his studio and was deeply influenced by the experience. It compelled him to think about two-versus three-dimensional motion and the ability that color had to convey movement. He also saw the way Mondrian executed his creations as a true artist rather than an engineer or draftsman. Calder's own approach in the studio grew from seeing this exemplary atelier. More importantly, this visit inspired him towards the abstract. Calder learned to drench himself in his own thoughts and studies, constantly re-visiting works and considerations from the past. As much as he was learning in Paris through exposure to an elite circle of other artists including Le Courbousier, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, Calder continually drew upon his experience with the circus in New York. Alexander S. C. Rower, Calder's grandson, observed that even his grandfather's "interest in Mondrian's studio environment reminds me of his...interest in the spatial relationships of the circus tent, with its complex rigging systems in place, all ready to be put into action."3

    In his studio, just as he had as a child in Pennsylvania, Calder was constantly cutting, bending, hammering, and assembling. This hands-on approach produced an unrivaled clarity of form and a directness of creation. However smooth his mobiles, wire drawings, and standing sculptures are, they always retain a quality of the handmade reminiscent of Hans Arp, Constantin Brâncuși, and Henry Moore. The circular floating elements, balancing gracefully atop the sharp summit of the mountain, are affixed to each other using a push pin method. Calder created perfectly-sized openings in the diminutive smooth, glossy-edged circles, threading the material pushing the excess wire in line with the rest of the moving component. The nubby effect of the pushed wire is at once practical and rhythmic. We see the artist's sense of concerted, well planned ingenuity paired with a folly of metal form. The looping knots are both practical and decorative - they allow the white circles to move with the air current while remaining anchored to one another and the base.

    As seen in The Mountain, Calder's penchant was for industrial materials, but at the onset of the Second World War they quickly became scarce. This inconvenience did not hinder Calder's practice. In many ways it strengthened the way he used what was available to him. Calder used what he had, sometimes found objects and scraps, to create sculptures that did not simply attempt to show movement, but rather to harness movement that already existed. His first abstract constructions with moving parts and small motors are not dissimilar to engineering experiments. At Stevens Institute, Calder had studied vibrations, longitudinal and transversal waves, sympathetic vibrations and resonances. He harnessed this understanding and his interest in physics and applied it to the core issue facing sculptors since the beginning of time: capturing objects and figures in motion to indicate their relationship to the animate. Calder's mobiles, a description coined by Marcel Duchamp for his suspended sculptures, are skeletal constructions built upon the progressive notion of negative space. The mobiles move with the motion that already exists in the air and evolve with atmospheric change. In bridling motion, Calder famously challenged our expectations of sculpture and the monumental. In the artist's own words, much like the circus, "when everything goes right, a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprise."4

    Though a great deal of attention has been paid to the innovative nature of the mobile, it is the stabile that represents the zenith of Calder's progression as a sculptor. This free-standing form solved the problem of the base left unsolved by Modern sculptors like Auguste Rodin and Constantin Brâncuși whilst capturing the available motion from the atmosphere. Calder approached the stabile form with energy and creativity for fifteen years following the successful receipt of the UNESCO commissioned work for their headquarters in Paris in 1958. He was involved with every aspect of the commercial production of his monumental public commissions, always carrying a piece of chalk in his pants pocket to point out inconsistencies. The commercial collaborations took up much of his time, and Calder craved working with his hands. Painting in gouache provided some solace, but it was the thinner metal material of The Mountain that lent itself to the same kind of tinkering, albeit much more sophisticated than that of his childhood duck. One can easily imagine Calder in his studio considering his past and revisiting his inspirations, making use of smaller parts of industrial metal sheets while working out the balance issues of a larger work. His mind might have wandered to the mountains of Washington and the trees ascending up the mountainsides. Executing his memory through hand-cutting the melodic curves of the Olympic Peninsula in three dimensions, The Mountain encapsulates the joy Calder must have felt as a young man making the decision to dedicate his life to questions of aesthetic and investigations of movement.

    To some, the stabile suggests and reverberates that energy and kinetic motion that is in fact emanating from the earth or the surface from whence the sculptures rest. Metal structures become organic forms and easily take on the titles that Calder lovingly gave them-often relating to the natural and bestial worlds. However, it is this exploration of the origins of motion that allows consideration of The Mountain to be derived from both a philosophical and spiritual framework. Calder explained his almost celestial vision for his own creations. To Calder, "the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form."5

    Calder pursued his craft with the vigor and vision of a Modern and secular deity- a truly enlightened Vitruvian man turning the manufactured into the natural, making sense of his world and expressing its power through his own creation. In 1922, Calder was traveling after finishing his engineering degree working on a commercial boat. Whilst in Guatemala, Calder looked out towards the the coast's horizon and saw the "beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side. I saw the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed me most of all; It left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system."6 This was a critical moment in his artistic development; the unwavering sentiment of looking at and being part of the solar system never ceased within him. The Mountain is the execution of a calculated, idealized vision of the universe distilled to the sublime. The work may be human scale, but given its inherent connection to the secular heavens and the overwhelmingly apparent sense of its joyously handmade creation, it carries the same weight and ideological power as even Calder's most monumental constructions.

    1. Alexander Calder, "What Abstract Art Means to Me," Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, no. 3, Spring 1951, pp. 8-9.
    2. Alexander Calder, quoted in NGA Kids Inside Scoop, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, Winter 2010, p. 4.
    3. Alexander S. C. Rower, Calder Sculpture, New York: Universe, 1998, p. 21.
    4. Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Calder, Cologne 2002, p. 47.
    5. Alexander Calder, MoMA Bulletin, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951.
    6. Alexander Calder and Jean Davidson, Calder, An Autobiography with Pictures, New York: Pantheon Books, 1966, pp. 54-55.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that this work was in the following exhibition: Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, Calder, 20 November 1997-15 February 1998. Catalogue no. 91 (not illustrated).
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960
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