Artist and innovator Alexander Calder set creativity in motion. Best known for his suspended sculptures of sheet metal and wire, famously dubbed “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp, Calder’s prolific career extended to monumental outdoor sculptures, works on paper, jewelry, and paintings. His stationary sculptures, “stabiles,” received their name from another peer, Jean Arp. From early in his career, Calder was embraced by an international community of influential artists, associating with Joan Miró, Jean Hélion, Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian and joining the group Abstraction-Création in 1931. It was a visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930, where he observed a wall of boldly colored rectangles, that motivated Calder toward abstraction.
Calder painted Smeary in the late 1940’s, during a period widely recognized as the most exciting and inventive of his career. This painting, one of the largest that the artist ever created, is a playful variation of several Calder themes. On one canvas, he blends figuration and abstraction, merges vibrant colors, and creates a composition of dynamic line and space that echoes his sculptural masterworks. Floating within Calder’s orange, red, yellow, and blue, butterflies disrupt this piece’s pure abstraction, perhaps transferring to canvas the same sense of movement achieved by his sculptural works: delicate motion, suspended in air.
Calder’s work constantly evolved across various media, and he received major retrospectives throughout his career, most notably at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1943 and at the Guggenheim Museum in 1964. James Johnson Sweeney, a friend of Calder and eventual director of the Guggenheim, once commented on Calder’s most striking contribution: the artist recognized the unpredictable character of natural movements and the aesthetic possibilities of the unexpected.