Alexander Calder: A Universe of Painting

August 10, 2022 – August 31, 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 modern 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, preferring oil and also 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. Calder remarked, “Light came from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on. Even the victrola, which had been some muddy color, was painted red.” This experience changed the trajectory of Calder’s career, signaling a shift to abstraction. His first wholly abstract compositions that followed were a series of oil paintings.


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 Calder’s hallmark geometric vocabulary including swoops and swirls. In this 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 lively nature of Joan Miro’s work, an artist and friend that Calder admired greatly. The two even created a series called “Constellations” done separately – without any communication between one another – but mysteriously in sync, visually. Notably, both bodies of works were named “Constellations” after the fact of creation not by the artists but by their contemporaries.


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.

© 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

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