Alexander Calder: A Universe of Painting

August 10, 2022 - February 28, 2023
Palm Desert, CA
“The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the universe…” – Alexander Calder


Heather James is proud to offer an exceptional collection of gouache works by the midcentury master Alexander Calder. All completed in the last decade of the artist’s life, these works show Calder in full command of his distinctive artistic language.

Although we know him today best for his sculptures, Calder started his artistic career as an abstract painter, always preferring gouache as a medium for his painted work. Sometimes known as opaque watercolor, gouache is a water-soluble paint which handles much like watercolor for the artist. Watercolor and gouache both allow the artist to paint quickly, but both are also extremely unforgiving mediums as they dry quickly and are difficult to rework. However, unlike watercolor, which has a translucent appearance, gouache contains white pigment, rendering the color opaque. Calder valued gouache for exactly these reasons, it dried quickly like a watercolor but rendered bold colors that he sought.


Calder visited Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio in October 1930. The studio astounded him in its strange layout and stark color combinations. The whiteness of the space contrasted furniture painted red or black, even a Victrola painted completely red. Calder remarked of the walls, “experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on.” This experience changed the trajectory of Calder’s career, influencing his compositions and color. Calder recalled Mondrian’s advice “to stick to primary colors; and [he] needed to know that.”


By the 1940s and 50s, Calder had become so popular as a sculptor that he largely left painting behind, concentrating on creating the kinetic sculptural vocabulary of that we know him for. Nevertheless, he never completely left painting. The exhibition features a rare oil painting from the 1940s. In this piece we can see the influence of Mondrian through the use of primary colors against a white background but there is also Calder’s hallmark geometric vocabulary including swoops and swirls. In this early painting, we can see Calder working through certain shapes that would recur throughout his career both in sculptural form and on a flat surface. Circles, ovals, and other geometries dominate the space. There is the same sense of energy and fluidity. The shapes do not sit on the surface – they vibrate giving a feeling of movement in contrast to the static nature of two-dimensional works. They seem to be in tune with the whimsical nature of Joan Miro’s work, an artist and friend that Calder admired greatly. The two even created a convergent series called “Constellations”, done separately but in sync stylistically and conceptually with each other.


Toward the end of his life, however, once he had secured fame and renown as a sculptor, Calder returned to the more intimate and less physically involved process of gouache painting in earnest. As he returned to gouache painting with a lifetime of experience as a sculptor, Calder began to transcribe the three-dimensional vocabulary of sculptural forms he had developed onto the two-dimensional surface of the paper. These gouaches provided an opportunity to explore color and line, often finding the intersection of abstraction and figuration, creating art that would not be possible in three-dimensional space.

This exhibition strives to gives a fuller picture of the unique vocabulary that Calder employed to explore the same themes of color, movement, and spatial enquiries from different perspectives.


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