'Black and white are first - then red is next - and then I get sort of vague. It's really just for differentiation, but I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish that I'd been a fauve in 1905' (A. Calder, quoted in K. Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, reproduced at www.calder.org)
'It's true that I've more or less retired from the smaller mobiles. I regard them as sort of fiddling. The engineering on the big objects is important; they're mostly designed for a particular spot' (A. Calder, quoted in J.M. Marter, Alexander Calder, Cambridge, 1991, p. 282).
'People think that monuments should come out of the ground, never out of the ceiling, but mobiles can be monumental too' (A. Calder, quoted in J. Lipman, Calder's Universe, London, 1977, p. 268).
Gracefully floating elements glide and rotate, wandering hither and thither across a vast expanse of space. Stretching almost half a dozen metres across, Rouge triomphant is one of the largest of Alexander Calder's hanging 'mobiles' ever to appear at auction. This sculpture, which the artist himself installed in his 1962 retrospective at the Tate, London, is historic, and was clearly a source of some fascination for the artist himself, who expanded it twice, adding new, large mobile elements to create a work of fantastic complexity and elegance; it formerly had the title All Black with One Red. With its black panels hovering and gently shifting alongside the lone flash of red, Rouge triomphant is an emphatic object lesson in Calder's ability to fuse beauty, movement, colour and play in a single work. The shaped leaves of metal act as sails and ballast alike, creating a delicate equilibrium; at the same time, several of them evocatively echo the cipher-like forms of the paintings of Calder's friend Joan Miró. This work, which was formerly owned by the Mobil Corporation, by whom it was acquired shortly after the artist's death, has featured in several other important exhibitions.
As is clear from both of the titles that Calder gave to Rouge triomphant, it is the red that is the focus of this mobile. It brings a sense of visual relief, a certain explosion of colour that activates the other panels while also providing a focal point. Calder had a particular love of red, despite downplaying the role of colour in his works. 'It's really secondary,' he explained to Katherine Kuh in an interview published in 1962, the year before Rouge triomphant was completed. 'I want things to be differentiated. Black and white are first - then red is next - and then I get sort of vague. It's really just for differentiation, but I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish that I'd been a fauve in 1905' (A. Calder, quoted in K. Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, reproduced at www.calder.org). Calder's love of red was famous - the artist was often shown in a signature red shirt, a visual moniker akin to Picasso's striped sailor tops.
The impact of the red panel in Rouge triomphant adds a sense of whimsy as well as movement that is accentuated by the different shapes of the various panels. Some are like crescents, others like leaves, others like speech bubbles or kites. Each of these flat surfaces is designed to balance, creating a complex game of weights and counterweights that reveals Calder's incredible ability to introduce feats of engineering into the world of art. This was one of the reasons that he enjoyed the challenge of the larger mobiles, explaining to Kuh that, 'it's more exhilarating - and then one can think he's a big shot' (A. Calder, quoted in ibid.).
Rouge triomphant was enlarged on two separate occasions by the artist himself, and has thus existed in three different states, reaching a point of culmination in 1963, during the period when the artist was mainly focussing on his large-scale sculptures. Around 1960, he had confessed that, 'It's true that I've more or less retired from the smaller mobiles. I regard them as sort of fiddling. The engineering on the big objects is important; they're mostly designed for a particular spot' (A. Calder, quoted in J.M. Marter, Alexander Calder, Cambridge, 1991, p. 282). This was in fact true of the original core of Rouge triomphant, which was commissioned for a specific location, the staircase of the gallery of Rudolf Hoffmann, Calder's dealer in Hamburg.
Hoffmann had already shown Calder's works in his gallery and had met the artist in 1952. For Hoffmann's staircase, the artist made an elegant mobile comprising the configuration which resembles a fern or a bunch of grapes consisting of vertical leaves of black metal with the red element that tops them. Hoffmann asked that Calder add some horizontal elements too; however, the resulting work proved too monumental, and was unable to fit in the staircase space. Calder accordingly made another similar, scaled-down mobile entitled For the Staircase for Hoffmann, and chose to keep Rouge triomphant, including it in the exhibition held in his honour at the Tate, London in 1962. Calder oversaw the installation of this exhibition, which took place the same year that Francis Bacon enjoyed his first major retrospective there. In its configuration at that point, the mobile was exhibited under the title All Black with One Red. It was only the following year that Calder would add another cluster of vertical leaves hanging from an upper bar, achieving the final form of Rouge triomphant.
Calder was a hands-on artist, a craftsman, a magician, and nowhere was this more in evidence than in his mobiles. When Calder created his monumental stabiles, he often used foundries and other companies, in particular Etablissements Biémont, who would come to construct many of his works. However, Calder himself explained that, regarding the large mobiles, he would often create these himself, but not in the slightly restrictive space of his own studio. Instead, he would visit local metal workers - as he would tell Kuh, 'For the very big ones I don't have machinery large enough, so I go to a shop and become the workman's helper' (A. Calder, quoted in ibid.). This approach allowed Calder to maintain a hands-on approach with much of his work. After all, his favourite tool appeared to be the pliers that were seldom far from his industrious hands. This was the equivalent of a paint brush or chisel for Calder, a means of bending his medium of choice - metal - to his will. In this, Calder, in a manner that was perfectly suited to the ethos of the pioneers of his native United States of America, fused the romantic with the artisan. 'Calder's characteristic material is metal,' his friend and supporter James Johnson Sweeney had said on the occasion of his 1951 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 'He 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, reproduced in C. Giménez & A.S.C. Rower (eds.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London, 2004, p. 72).
Working by hand in the industrial scale of this mobile, Calder was continuing the tradition of his father and grandfather, both of whom had been celebrated American sculptors. Fountains and figures throughout the urban fabric of Philadelphia in particular form enduring tributes to their legacy as sculptors. Calder took up their mantle, yet did so in a hugely idiosyncratic way that embraced modernity, be it in his embrace of abstraction, his embrace of movement or his embrace of the found and industrial materials from which he created his graceful mobiles. For Calder, the idea of working on such a large scale had great appeal, not least because he felt that the ultimate model for his mobiles was the infinite cosmos: 'the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from' (A. Calder, quoted in J. Lipman, Calder's Universe, London, 1977, p. 18).
A year after Calder's death in 1976, Rouge triomphant was acquired by the Mobil Corporation, a tribute to the artist that he, with his love of jeux de mots, would doubtless have enjoyed. This mobile was not the only work by Calder that was owned by Mobil - in fact, his friend, the architect Eliot Noyes, had introduced his work to the company over a span of years in his capacity as a director of design. The presence of Rouge triomphant in the collection of Mobil may have been a tribute to Noyes himself, who died in 1977, the same year that it was acquired.
The presence of such a major Calder in such an important corporate collection was an extension of the incredible presence of his works in civic spaces as well as airports, offices and other highly peopled environments. Still to this day, Calder's sculptures can be seen in public plazas and outside art galleries throughout the world. Rouge triomphant perfectly demonstrates the source of their enduring appeal: in this huge construction, Calder has deftly managed to combine the monumental with the ethereal. The swaying movements of the various panels as they bob around, pushed by each breeze or breath, are made all the more miraculous and lyrical by the sheer mass of metal which is involved.