Calder's Voyage to India: Works from an Important Private Collection
This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A10121.
“In 1954”, recalled Alexander Calder in his memoirs, “I received a letter from a young Indian woman who wrote me mentioning Jean Hélion, my good friend. She was Gira Sarabhai, youngest of eight children of a large wealthy family in Ahmedabad, which is somewhere halfway between Bombay and Delhi. She offered Louisa and me a trip to India, if I’d consent to make some objects for her when there. I immediately replied yes” (A. Calder, An Autobiography with Pictures, New York 1966, pp. 231-32).
Gira Sarabhai’s letter to Calder was the start of an extraordinary journey, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In the three weeks that Calder spent at the Sarabhai family compound in Ahmedabad between January and February 1955, he produced one of the most fascinating bodies of work in his oeuvre. Gira, an architect offered the artist an unparalleled opportunity: to become part of the thriving creative hub that, thanks to the patronage and vision of the Sarabhai family, was changing the cultural landscape of Ahmedabad during the 1950s. Gira and her brother Gautam had founded the Calico Textile Museum—arguably the best of its kind in the world—and had already welcomed leading figures of the European and American avant-garde to their home, including Isamu Noguchi, Le Corbusier and John Cage. Others would soon follow, including Robert Rauschenberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Neutra—who visited whilst designing the US Embassy for Karachi—and Charles and Ray Eames, with whom Gira and Gautam would collaborate to establish the city’s celebrated National Institute of Design, commissioned by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Calder was particularly intrigued, too, by the famous kite flying festival due to take place in Ahmedabad in January, writing to Gira “I certainly don’t want to miss that!” (A. Calder, letter to Gira Sarabhai, August 24 1954). He announced that he would bring his pliers, but no other tools. Over the course of his stay, he produced a group of sculptures that rank among his finest works.
Held in the same private collection since their creation, and largely unseen by the public, the works offered for auction chart the development of the family’s relationship with Calder—from Untitled, 1952 (known as “Blue Dot”) purchased by Gira from Paris, to the intimately scaled Untitled, 1954 sent as a carte de visite in advance of his arrival, to a selection of the scultpures created within the verdant grounds of the Sarabhais’ estate. Together, these works testify to an artist at the height of his powers, whose early studies in engineering and subsequent immersion in the 1920s Parisian art scene had given birth to one of the very first kinetic visual languages.
By the mid-1950s, spurred on by his receipt of the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale, Calder had achieved an unprecedented degree of mastery over his materials. Hypnotic forms sprang to life from minimal combinations of painted sheet metal and wire, delicately balanced upon twisting, serpentine supports. Form, color and motion were held in almost balletic tension with one another, subject to the slightest change in atmospheric conditions. A gust of air or a beam of sunlight could transform the sculpture from a static suspension to a piece of optical poetry: a living, breathing performance that unfolded before the eyes of its onlooker. Liberated by the striking economy of means to which he had distilled his practice, Calder began to travel, visiting Beirut and Caracas as well as India between 1954 and 1955. On each occasion, operating like a nomadic artisan, he set up a temporary studio and worked intensively over a few short weeks. It was during this period that Calder, who had hitherto split his time between New York and Paris, became a truly global artist.
In India, Calder’s pursuit of visual harmony reached new heights. Each work is a masterpiece of precision engineering: a triumphant fusion of optics and kinetics. Largely created outside, his sculptures became part of the landscape, intimately united with their natural environment. Franji Pani, titled after the tropical flowering tree, is a vision of delicate white blooms upon a tender stem. Sumac 17—part of a larger series of the same title—evokes the distinctive red foliage of its namesake in twenty-two individual parts: a virtuosic eulogy to the artist’s most beloved color. A singular white beacon glimmers amidst a starry constellation in White Moon, whilst Rouge et Noir quivers like a cascading fall of leaves. The group includes instances of rare technical innovation: the all-black Claw features a collapsible main rod, with two shorter wires interlaced to produce a wider span; the elegant Red Stalk uses a slender wire loop to attach the large horizontal counterweight to the central rod. The large-scale Untitled, previously housed in the Sarabhais’ garden, is a monumental structure inscribed with “S C”. Almost architectural in its conception, its gigantic form simultaneously exudes a sense of weightlessness, casting ever-changing shadows upon its surroundings. Each of these works powerfully conjures its original setting: through their color, shape and motion, they evoke the rustling breeze, the languid tropical heat, the twisted vines and scented blooms, the radiant beams of the sun and the grandeur of the Sarabhai estate. In India, Calder’s practice found a fitting new home.
CALDER IN AHMEDABAD
On January 12 1955, Calder and his wife Louisa landed in Bombay. After a day of sightseeing, they boarded the twelve hour train to Ahmedabad: the largest city and then-state capital of Gujarat, situated on the banks of the River Sabarmati. Early on the morning of January 15, they arrived at the Sarabhais’ family estate in Shahibag, where they were hosted for the next three weeks by Gira, her brother Gautam and his wife Kamalini.
The Sarabhais were a leading Jain business dynasty, who had played a pivotal role in India’s industrial, political and cultural development. Amabalal Sarabhai, the patriarch of the family, founded a number of enterprises including Calico Textile Mills—one of India’s largest textile companies—and became a prominent patron of the arts. He had been heavily involved in India’s independence movement along with his wife Saraladevi, who had worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi himself. Calder himself refers to the couple throughout his correspondence as “Papabhai” and “Mummyben”: affectionate names that reflected their warmth, generosity and impeccable hospitality. Alongside Gira and Gautam, their eight children included the scientist Vikram Sarabhai, widely acknowledged as the father of India’s space programme, and the musician Gita Sarabhai, who famously provided the composer John Cage with the inspiration for his seminal work 4’33”. Mridula Sarabhai was a politician and activist who continued her parents’ legacy in fighting for India’s freedom, whilst Leena Sarabhai established the Shreyas Foundation in order to educate orphaned and underprivileged children. As a family, the Sarabhais fostered creativity and innovation, and nurtured a wide variety of international relationships.
The Sarabhai family compound was a secluded twenty-acre estate known as the Retreat. The central family home—colloquially referred to as the Big House—was a large four-storey structure which contained apartments for each of Ambalal’s children. As his children grew to adulthood, Ambalal offered each a plot of land within or outside the Retreat estate. Most chose the Retreat option and went on to design or commission their own home. At the direction of his hosts, a studio was set up for Calder on the estate, with a workshop at his disposal. However, as an artist whose work drew inspiration from the poetry of nature, Calder was unable to resist the allure of the Sarabhais’ luscious gardens, and much of his work was completed on a bench outside in the grounds. “Cows were tethered there, and a couple of water buffaloes”, he recalled (A. Calder, quoted in Calder’s Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977, p. 335). It was an oasis of tranquillity and harmony, and a haven for the arts: a place of respite and creative experimentation, guided by the Sarabhais’ deep appreciation of international artistic languages. Indeed, many of the artists whose works they acquired had played an important role in Calder’s own life and practice: most notably Piet Mondrian, whose studio had inspired the artist’s turn towards abstraction, and his close friend Joan Miró.
Through their involvement with architecture, business, design and social economics, Calder’s hosts Gira and Gautam embodied the family’s pioneering spirit. Like their siblings, they had been home schooled using the Montessori method. Gautam read mathematics and philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and Gira studied with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright on his estate in Taliesin East in Wisconsin during the 1940s. In 1945, Gautam succeeded his father as Chairman of the Calico Textile Mill, and expanded the company through a series of innovative changes in both technology and workforce management—an endeavour later celebrated in A. K Rice’s 1958 study Productivity and Social Organization: The Ahmedabad Experiment. In 1949, he and Gira established the Calico Textile Museum, exhibiting handmade and mass-produced textiles from the family’s personal collection. It was first post-independence institution devoted to the relationship between design and technology, and was subsequently credited with launching “Ahmedabad’s renaissance in contemporary India” (R. Kalia, Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Postcolonial India, Columbia 2004, p. 58). The siblings’ dedication to the relationship between art education and product manufacture made them natural allies for Charles and Ray Eames, with whom they worked closely to establish the world-famous National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad during the 1960s.
Armed with a mere pair of pliers, as well as some metal and wire procured from Bombay, Calder worked intensively at the Retreat for three weeks, punctuated by occasional visits to a blacksmith’s shop and a trip to Udaipur between January 25 and 29. Writing less than a week after their arrival, Louisa Calder described how “Sandy has been working for the last five days and has made several mobiles ... Tonight they are going to show the two films on Sandy. The MAM one and the Meredith one—They have invited about eighty people to see it—Last night we spent hanging the ones [mobiles] he has finished in the trees around Gautam’s terrace. It was like looking for a picnic ground, everyone had a different idea—lots of fun” (L. Calder, letter to Jane and Jimmy de Tomasi, January 19 1955). The “Meredith one” was the Herbert Matter’s 1950 film Works of Calder, narrated by Burgess Meredith with music by John Cage. Matter was also a friend of the Sarabhai family, and Calder had promised to bring the film with him to Ahmedabad following its screening in Beirut. Louisa’s letter testifies to the Sarabhais’ dedication to promoting Calder’s work in India, as well as the sense of communal enjoyment engendered by his mobiles.
During his stay, Calder produced nine sculptures, as well as several pieces of jewellery. On February 13, he and his wife left the Retreat on a tour of India and Nepal organised by the Sarabhais, travelling through Madras, Calcutta, Shantiniketan, Kathmandu, Delhi and Jaipur, before returning to Bombay on March 6. There, on March 9, a selection of the works produced during his time in India were unveiled for the first time at a private exhibition at the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, where the Herbert Matter film was also screened. Unfortunately, Calder himself was unable to attend, due to a sudden attack of pneumonia. On March 12, the Calders left India, and wrote immediately to Gira to thank her for their stay. They remained lifelong friends with the family, exchanging regular correspondence until Calder’s death, and welcomed Gautam and his daughter to the artist’s Paris studio on at least one occasion. Calder’s relationship with the family is eloquently captured in the sculpture Happy Family—the only one of the works produced in Ahmedabad now owned by the Sarabhai Foundation. Its eight spheres symbolise the eight children, whilst Ambalal and Saraladevi stand as an elephant and a smiling sun respectively. As with Calder’s best works, it is a masterful symphony of color, form and motion, each element moving both independently and as part of an integrated whole. It is a dynamic, lively work that not only captures the essence of Calder’s aesthetic, but also bears witness to his lasting affection for the Sarabhai family.
CALDER IN THE 1950s
The 1950s was a pivotal decade in Calder’s practice. As his sculptures became increasingly sought after, following his success at the 1952 Venice Biennale, he entered one of the most innovative periods of his career. Alongside his mobiles and stabiles of the 1950s—many of which are now housed in major museum collections, including Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, c. 1953 (Tate, London) and Red Lily Pads, 1956 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)—he began to turn his attention to works executed on a grand scale, creating his first group of large outdoor sculptures during a year-long stay in Aix-en-Provence. Calder’s growing fame earned him major commissions from across the world, including the mobile .125 for the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Spirale for U.N.E.S.C.O. in Paris and The Whirling Ear for the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. At the same time, Calder also began to travel, reinvigorating his artisanal roots through a series of short residencies abroad—to Beirut in 1954, to Ahmedabad in 1955 and to Caracas shortly after his return from India. Each trip consisted of a short, intensive spurt of artistic production in a makeshift studio, followed by a small exhibition and a period of travelling and sightseeing with his wife. These sojourns provided Calder with an exhilarating challenge: by dramatically limiting his time and materials, and purposefully relocating to a foreign setting, the artist unlocked a newfound sense of creative freedom, submitting himself to intuition and the spirited impulses of his imagination. In India, Calder amplified this sense of spontaneity by titling his works just hours before their unveiling at the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute.
The present group of sculptures marks the culmination of a journey that began during Calder’s childhood, as a young boy—and later a student—with a natural flair for engineering. Following his decision to channel his technical abilities into art, Calder travelled to France, where he imbibed the revolutionary creative spirit of 1920s Paris. He attracted initial acclaim through his 1926 Cirque Calder (1926-31)—a complex series of miniature sculptures, in which everyday materials such as wire, fabric, leather and cork were carefully engineered to replicate circus acrobatics. However, it was not until his now-legendary visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930 that Calder first began to integrate freely-moving kinetic elements into his work. Calder was fascinated by Mondrian’s working environment, in particular by the colored cardboard rectangles—a form of compositional experimentation—that adorned the walls. For Calder, it was a vision that demanded to be set in motion: as he later recalled, “I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate” (A. Calder, An Autobiography with Pictures, New York 1966, p. 113). By 1931, Calder had brought this idea to fruition. Suddenly, color and form were joined together by a third—hitherto unexplored—element: movement. All at once, Calder’s humble materials took flight in a blaze of primary hues and biomorphic shapes: spheres, circles and delicate twisting lines were airborne in captivating visual harmony, casting hypnotic shadows in their wake. It was Marcel Duchamp who suggested the term mobiles, subsequently praising them for their “pure joie de vivre”. “The art of Calder,” he wrote, “is the sublimation of a tree in the wind” (M. Duchamp, entry on Calder for the Société Anonyme catalogue (1950), reprinted in M. Duchamp, Duchamp du Signe, Paris 1975, p. 196).
By the mid-1950s, the New York school of Abstract Expressionist painters was in its heyday, extolling vast, sprawling planes of color designed to invoke transcendental experience. Calder, however, distanced himself from these artists both physically and conceptually. His roots, although very much American, were also in Paris, where he had mixed closely with exponents of the burgeoning Surrealist movement including André Masson, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró. For these artists, color and form functioned as a means of expressing the untapped dimensions of consciousness—as tools for heightening visual experience, rather than inducing existential sublimation. With their primary tones and geometric structures, Calder’s mobiles are abstract, and yet as the present group of works testify, they are also profoundly evocative, suggesting—though never prescribing—the whiteness of Franji Pani flowers and the gleam of the moonlight, clusters of bright red berries, the blazing sun and the luscious glow of tropical fruits. In contrast to the Abstract Expressionists, Calder’s chromatic fields invoke natural—rather than supernatural—phenomena: his colored forms gesture towards known realities, rather than the incomprehensible dimensions of infinity. In this regard, Calder’s work arguably had more in common with the practices of André Derain and Henri Matisse than with those of Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman. Indeed, the artist himself famously asserted that “I often wish that I’d been a fauve in 1905” (A. Calder, quoted in E. Hutton and O. Wick (eds.), Calder, London 2004, p. 89).
The works offered for auction reflect the precision and ingenuity of Calder’s sculptural practice at the pinnacle of his artistic development. The collection is underpinned by the same lyrical balance of forms that Gira Sarabhai had first admired in Untitled, 1952 (“Blue Dot”): a work defined by its fan-like profusion of pointed and circular elements. Sumac 17 builds upon this vocabulary: suspended from above, its constituent parts orbit one another in elegant counterpoint, caught in an endless spatial and chromatic dialogue. It is a vision of aerodynamic splendour, evoking the euphoric tangle of shape and movement that Calder had witnessed during his much-anticipated visit to Ahmedabad’s kite flying festival. Red Stalk, Franji Pani and the large-scale Untitled, by contrast, spring organically from the ground, their moving parts balanced on slender, static supports. Like branches on a tree, they hover majestically in mid-air, allowing light and motion to recalibrate their silhouettes. In the languorous lilt of each constituent part, it is almost possible to sense the balmy tropical air that guided their first tentative movements. They are works that reflect their natural surroundings, absorbing the essence of the landscape and inhabiting it freely, performing to the elements and the seasons. They embody the very condition to which Calder’s art had long aspired: beings with a life of their own. “When everything goes right”, he explained, “a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises” (A. Calder, quoted in K. Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists. New York and Evanston, Illinois: Harper & Row, 1962, p. 41).
Calder’s time in India allowed him the freedom to engage with his craft in its most basic form. The challenge of breathing life into earthbound materials with severely limited equipment required him to submit to intuition, relying solely upon the interaction between hand and eye. As James Johnson Sweeney recounted, “[Calder] has always avoided modeling in favor of direct handling—cutting, shaping with a hammer, or assembling piece by piece. Such an approach has fostered a simplicity of form and clarity of contour in his work. It allies him with Brancusi, Arp, Moore and Giacometti in their repudiation of virtuosity” (J. J. Sweeney, Alexander Calder, exh. cat., New York 1951, p. 8, reproduced in C. Giménez & A. S. C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London 2004, p. 72). Calder had spent time early in his career visiting the ateliers of local metal workers, and relished the opportunity to reprise this activity in India. Indeed, the country’s growing industrial landscape—at which the Sarabhais were at the very heart—resonated with the sense of pioneering technical innovation that had driven his practice from the beginning. Selden Rodman has drawn a compelling parallel between Calder’s aesthetic and the work of the Wright brothers, explaining that “the Wrights too were in love with simplicity, with perfection of motion and economy of means. They began and ended their work as artists” (S. Rodman, “Conversations with Artists: Alexander Calder”, in C. Giménez and A. S. C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London 2004, p. 84). In the peace and tranquillity of the Sarabhais’ secluded gardens, Calder was able to reconnect with the fundamental aim of his practice: transforming base materials into seemingly impossible expressions of natural beauty; coercing wire and metal into an ever-changing, life-affirming dance.
AHMEDABAD IN THE 1950s
The Sarabhai family’s commitment to artistic patronage transformed the cultural scene in Ahmedabad throughout the 1950s. Following the Indian Independence Act of 1947—an achievement in which the Sarabhais had participated wholly—the country was on the brink of exciting new horizons. Calder was one of a group of artists, designers, photographers, architects and musicians who came to the city during this period, attracted to the exhilarating creative environment that was quickly taking hold. Leading figures of the Western avant-garde were drawn into a thriving artistic exchange, feeding off the city’s atmosphere and transporting its influences back to their studios. Many stayed at the Retreat—including Noguchi, Cage and Rauschenberg—whilst Le Corbusier designed a villa in the family compound. At the same time, India was also beginning to export aspects of its culture to the West: indeed, it was in 1955—the same year that Calder visited Ahmedabad—that the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted the most comprehensive exhibition of Indian textiles and ornamental arts ever to take place in the United States.
Calder’s initial introduction to the Sarabhais was likely to have been through Noguchi, with whom he had spent several years in France during the 1920s. Noguchi first met the Sarabhais through Luchita Mullican, and used the Retreat as a base during his six-month pilgrimage through India and Asia in 1949. At that time, Noguchi was fascinated by the public’s ritual interaction with civic and sacred sites, and it was whilst staying with the Sarabhais that he discovered the Jantar Mantars of Delhi and Jaipur: open-air observatories containing gigantically-scaled astronomical instruments. Between 1949 and 1960, these near-architectural monuments inspired a series of photographs and sculptures, and Noguchi’s repeated returns to India during this period allowed him to cultivate a close friendship with the Sarabhai family. His time in Ahmedabad had a critical impact on his aesthetic: “India is a place that taught me something about the various fundamental problems of sculpture,” he remarked in a 1956 article in the magazine Geijutsu Shincho. “They bring the materials at hand to life more effectively. And they are shocking. In that respect they resemble modern art” (I. Noguchi, Geijutsu Shincho, 1956, quoted in Metropolis Magazine, March 2015).
Perhaps the Sarabhais’ biggest contribution to the cultural landscape of Ahmedabad during this period was through Gira and Gautam’s collaboration with the American husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames, with whom they worked closely to establish the National Institute of Design. In 1958, the Eames’ were commissioned by the Nehru administration to produce a report on the various challenges that the country was facing in relation to Western design and technology. The first part examined the role of design in India from a number of different perspectives, including architecture, economics, sociology, psychology and anthropology. The second half proposed a new educational model for designers: an institute of consultancy and research directly linked to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, staffed by experts in the fields of both art and government. In 1961, Gautam was appointed chairman of the Institute’s governing council, and Gira later became chairwoman of its Board of Directors. A range of celebrated artists and designers visited the Institute during its early years, including Henri Cartier-Bresson—who had been photographing India since 1947—the architect Louis Khan, the filmmaker Gullio Gianini and typographer Adrian Frutiger.
Gira and Gautam’s architectural passions also brought about an influx of leading Western architects. Most notable among them was Le Corbusier, who first came to India in the early 1950s to design the city of Chandigarh. “At this moment in the evolution of modern civilization India represents a quality of spirit, particularly attractive”, he wrote to his British correspondents in 1950. “Our task is to discover the architecture to be immersed in the sieve of this powerful and profound civilization and the endowment of favorable modern tools to find it a place in present time” (L. Corbusier, quoted in S. Prasad, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, London 1987, p. 279). Over the course of fourteen years, Le Corbusier executed around ten substantial architectural projects, including Chandigarh’s Palace of Justice, Palace of Assembly and Secretariat, as well as the Government Museum and Art Gallery, the Chandigarh College of Architecture and the Open Hand Monument. During the mid-1950s he turned his attention to Ahmedabad, designing the Mill Owners’ Association Building, the Sanskar Kendra Museum, the Villa Shodhan and the Villa de Madame Manorama Sarabhai. The latter featured a slide leading down to a crystal clear swimming pool, and substituted all exterior doors for bamboo blinds that allowed light and air to filter freely through the house.
The American composer John Cage first visited Ahmedabad in 1955, having been introduced to the Sarabhais’ musical daughter Gita by Noguchi in New York in 1946. The pair developed a deep artistic dialogue, in which Gita taught Cage about Indian musical aesthetics, and Cage instructed her in Western musical traditions. Cage later claimed that Gita “came like an angel from India”, bringing with her the revelation that the purpose of music “is to quiet and sober the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences” (J. Cage, quoted in J. Pritchett, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge 1996, p. 37). This concept was to become central to Cage’s thinking, and is said to have inspired his infamous composition 4’33”, comprising solely of the incidental noise made by a concert hall audience over a timed period of 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Cage visited Ahmedabad again in 1964 as musical advisor to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during its world tour, along with the Company’s resident designer Robert Rauschenberg. His visits to the Retreat brought him closer to the family, and he later noted that one of his life’s greatest regrets was not accepting an invitation from Gira to walk in the Himalayas and travel by elephant.
The 1964 trip to Ahmedabad captured Rauschenberg’s imagination too. In 1975, he was invited back by Anand Sarabhai to collaborate with papermakers at the ashram—or textile factory—founded by Mahatma Gandhi. The month-long trip inspired his Jammer series: a sequence of fabric works made from fragments of material he had collected during his stay. Rauschenberg was particularly struck by the contrast between the vibrantly-colored, luxuriant textiles and the prevailing poverty and hardship he witnessed on a daily basis. It was, as he explained, a “cruel combination of disease and starvation and poverty and mud and sand and yet it was all punctuated with maybe just that one piece of beautiful silk” (R. Rauschenberg, http://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/art-in-context/mirage-jammer [accessed March 24 2016]).
Calder's Voyage to India: Works from an Important Private Collection
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
London, Ordovas Gallery, Calder in India, May-August 2012, pp. 78-79, 87-88 and 93 (illustrated in color).
S. Jhaveri, Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, London, 2013, p. 44, no. 3 (illustrated in color).
Gira Sarabhai, Ahmedabad (acquired directly from the artist in 1955)
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner