This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A09801.
Throughout his long and prolific career, Alexander Calder engaged the dynamics of natural forces in his abstract sculptures. Sometimes he referenced a form from nature, and one of these forms endured from the 1920s to become a popular subject: the fish. Executed in the early 1950s, at the height of the artist’s career, Fish is a large-scale hanging mobile which ably displays both Calder’s rich aesthetic talent and the ingenious skill needed to successfully achieve a mesmerizing result. It is one of just twelve sculptures that the artist executed in this form, nearly half of which are now housed in public institutions around the world. From seemingly simple and unassuming materials—in this case wire, string and pieces of metal and colorful glass—Calder produces a mesmeric object which delights in its overall form, but astounds in its detail. Individual glass elements carefully suspended within the body of the fish sparkle like jewels as they catch the light; a constantly moving eye seems to follow you; even the artist’s initials are captured and suspended in an intricate thin metal wire attached to the fish’s large body. With works such as this, Calder re-invigorated the traditionally staid medium of sculpture, taking it off the pedestal and making the conventionally static and monocratic forms reverberate with movement and color.
At nearly four-feet across Fish commands the space within which it hangs. Its sleek, elegant silhouette is embellished with a series of bejeweled glass pieces carefully suspended within its body. Each is individually attached to the main body of the fish, thus allowing them shimmer when they catch the light, mimicking the radiance of the rainbow-like iridescent scales of the fish as they glisten in the sunlight. Each element is derived from a piece of broken glass, a previously discarded bottle or container which Calder has recycled and given a new lease on life by presenting it in a new way. This same approach is also used to denote the fish’s eye, as Calder incorporates a long-abandoned metal cog into his design, allowing it to be suspended by just a single strand of red string, incorporating the natural incidental movement that occurs when activated by the slightest breeze into the magic of his composition. Calder displays his sense of joie-de-vivre, to quote Marcel Duchamp on the artist, with the coil of wire that adorns the upper tail fin. This spiral adds a dramatic sense of movement, as if to mimic the flick of the fish’s tail before it disappears off into the depth of the oceans.
Strikingly beautiful, Fish is also an outstanding example of the technical aspects of this new form of sculpture that Calder himself developed. Coming from a family of sculptors (both his father and grandfather were accomplished exponents of the medium), Calder initially rejected following in the same tradition and trained as an engineer. Yet, perhaps inevitably, he was drawn back to an artistic career but with the eye of an innovator, a quality that can be seen in the flawless composition of Fish. Within its sleek contours, form is expertly married with function as disparate elements come together in a harmonious whole. Each of the glass elements is suspended in such a way that that it hangs in perfect synchronization with its surroundings; each is a different color and a different shape, inviting an intense examination of its own individual form. Thus, the 33 individually suspended pieces of glass almost become individual sculptures in their own right.
Although Calder is most known for his non-objective mobiles and stabiles that both activate and shape surrounding space, his repertoire included figurative forms, the most enduring of which was the fish. He first began to explore its aesthetic possibilities in 1929 with his exquisitely delicate works in wire, Goldfish Bowl and Fish. In 1934, buoyed by warm temperatures and his recent move to an old farmhouse he’d purchased in Roxbury, Connecticut, Calder produced a large-scale outdoor sculpture called Steel Fish; although entirely abstract, the work was likely titled after a vague description of the large steel shape that evokes a fish. Many of these early complex constructions coincided with the organic imagery of Joan Miró and Paul Klee, despite the fact that their oeuvres developed along entirely separate trajectories. Calder and Miró formed a lifelong friendship after the pair first met in Paris in 1928 and lasted until Calder’s death in 1976. But as Miró’s work became more symbolic, Calder’s became more abstract. Although his piscine forms were making appearances in his oeuvre, these pieces often merely allude to forms without following them implicitly. When Calder’s latest works were shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1937, a critic asked Calder to define the significance of his organic forms. He replied, “I really don’t think that the thing can be reduced to a formula. Each thing I make has, according to its degrees of success, a plastic quality which includes many things—the mass, or masses; the sinuosity; the contrast of lightness to mass…These things may be related, and they doubtless are, but I have formed no theories about the relation. An idea which will lead me to make a new ‘object’ may come from almost anywhere, from anything” (A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898–1976, Washington, 1998, p. 138).
In 1939, Calder was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to produce a work for their new building in New York; the result was the spectacular Lobster Trap and Fish Tail. This abstract work consisted of a cascade of black organic elements that would become one of his trademark arrangements, and along with shapes that suggest a wire cage-like trap and a bright red lure, it was his largest hanging mobile to date—and a commission that launched Calder’s career as a publicly known artist. In 1943, the artist began one of his most ambitious works featuring a fish motif, when he was commissioned by the renown collector Peggy Guggenheim to make a silver bed head for her bedroom in her New York apartment. He chose to imagine an underwater garden, complete with two fish in the lower left of the work, to capture Peggy’s eye as she entered the room. Following the critical acclaim of works such as this and Lobster Trap and Fish Tail, Calder’s fish forms—whether direct or imagined through titles—became a recognizable pillar of this period of his career. The present example, along with the other examples in this small series, have become some of the most widely admired works in his oeuvre and many now form the cornerstone of major museum collections, including Finny Fish, 1948 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); Fish Bones, 1939 (Centre National d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris); The Fish, 1944 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); and Fish, 1945 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.).
By taking the fish as a subject matter, Calder is building on a tradition that dates back to the very earliest days of human civilization. The fish has acquired an important role in many of the world’s great faiths and religions. In the West, the earliest use of the fish as a symbolic object was made by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (born circa 150) who encouraged his readers to place the image of a fish in their personal seals. The origin of the fish’s status in the Christian faith has been traced back to the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 (the only miracle to appear in all four Gospels) in which Jesus feeds a large crowd of people with just five loaves and two fishes. The fish is one of the eight Buddhist symbols of good fortune, and in many other faiths act as a representation of abundance and wealth. Linked to the idea that water is the giver of life, the fish has also become associated with sustenance and nourishment, and thereby linked to health, wealth and prosperity.
But for Calder, the fish resonates with the serene and graceful movement that he was trying to emulate in his work. After centuries of being constrained by its static traditions, sculpture was released from its confines thanks to Calder’s radical introduction of the fourth dimension of time. The resulting body of work, of which Fish is arguably one of the most accomplished examples, gave Calder the opportunity to fully explore the kinetic possibilities of sculpture and produce three- and four-dimensional worlds that were in constant flux. As he once said, “A mobile is a feisty thing, and seldom stays tranquilly in one place…. A mobile in motion leaves an invisible wake behind it, or rather, each element leaves an individual wake behind its individual self. Sometimes these wakes are contracted within each other, and sometimes they are deployed” (A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898–1976, Washington, 1998, p. 137).
Fish remains one of the most accomplished examples of Calder piscine forms. Its delicate and sleek contours, combined with the substantial pieces of vibrantly colored glass, result in an intoxicating work that reverberates with visual delight. Its rich aesthetic, combined with its skilled execution, make it a prime example of the artist’s work. Furthermore, its size and graceful and majestic movements testify to an artist who upended thousands of years of sculptural convention, and who, in doing so, created some of the most innovative and influential works of the past one hundred years. As Jean-Paul Sartre aptly surmised, “[Calder’s] mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes” (J.P. Sartre, in Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations, Paris, 1946).