Sophisticated Whimsy: Calder’s “Toadstool” and “Untitled” at Auction
Alexander Calder once stated, “When everything goes right, a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises” (A. Calder, quoted in J. Lipman, Calder’s Universe, London, 1977, p. 261). Calder’s instantly recognizable kinetic sculptures revolutionized the art form in the early 20th century. Trained originally as a mechanical engineer, in 1926 he followed his passion for art to Paris, where he remained for seven years. While there, he absorbed European Modernism and was particularly influenced by the biomorphic forms, flat planes, and primary colors used by Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró. Calder used these motifs to invent his own artistic language, constructing moving sculptures that came to be known as stabiles. These works, with their irregular forms, bold colors, and flat planes, all harmoniously balanced to move with the faintest air current, both delight and awe.
Executed in 1948, Toad Stool with Feather ($300,000-500,000) particularly exudes a charming whimsy that belies its sophisticated construction. Calder’s training as an engineer reveals itself in the work’s balance of several individual elements on two separate pivot points, creating a subtle delicacy. Standing at only seven inches tall, the diminutive size further captivates the imagination. The sculpture embodies all the majesty of a favorite fairytale, with the wire whisper of a stylized feather balanced by the handsome heft of the mushroom cap.
On a 1948-49 studio visit to Calder’s studio, fellow artist and friend Andre Masson wrote a poem as a gift for Calder. One verse in particular evokes the magical qualities of Toad Stool with Feather:
Here the seconds have not the weight of the clock
nor do they lie quiet in the grass
for they cannot conceive of immobility
they love the rustling of reeds
and the cry of the tree-toad so expert at
and they play between your fingers, Calder, my friend.
(Andre Masson, “The Studio of Alexander Calder,” Calder, New York, 1971, p. 56)
Arguably a personal favorite, Toadstool with Feather remained in Calder’s own collection until it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art’s Lending Service, shortly before the artist’s passing in 1976.
Created toward the end of his storied career, Untitled, 1970 ($200,000 to 400,000), demonstrates through balance and movement a maker who has mastered his craft. Like Toadstool with Feather, at 16 inches tall the work is small in stature, yet achieves a monumental impact. The bold, glossy red of the triangular base contrasts against the delicate, matte white biomorphic forms that precariously balance on top of the base’s point. The juxtaposition of the counter-balanced curving and straight wires likewise creates a tension that gives the sculpture a unique presence.
Both Toadstool with Feather and Untitled quiver with a delicate vitality and strength, testaments to Calder’s ingenuity and creativity. The sale of these two works at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers upcoming December 15th Post War and Contemporary Art auction provides a unique opportunity to own outstanding examples of the artist’s inventive approach.