This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application no. A07759.
With its elegant combination of color, form and poise, Alexander Calder’s The Long Brass Tail on Black and Red is an exquisite example of the artist’s tabletop sculptures. Composed of a dynamic upward sail of red and black metal curved slightly in the middle, on top of its triangular tip the “long brass tail” of the sculpture’s title balances confidently while extending its reach out in both directions. On one side, an elegant curve whips through space, while on the other a dynamic zig-zag of cascading white dots tumbles through the air. A blue disc occupies the central position just off to the side of the central element, completing this quartet of abstracted natural forms. Calder’s inspiration came from many different sources, including the forms he found in nature. Yet, he always stressed that his works were not figurative. In 1957, a year after making this sculpture, he said, “To most people who look at a mobile, it’s not more than a series of flat object that move. To a few, though, it may be poetry. I feel there’s a greater scope for the imagination to work that can’t be pinpointed by any specific emotion. That is the limitation of representational sculpture. You’re often enclosed, stopped” (A. Calder, quoted in M. Prather, Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 282-283). With this particular example, Calder successfully incorporates graceful movement and sculptural dynamism that he pioneered in his ground-breaking mobiles.
The Long Brass Tail on Black and Red is among the most illustrious of Calder’s table top sculptures. Comprised of a static, stable base which supports a configuration of moving elements, the sculpture is not only beautiful, but also an accomplished feat of engineering. The nearly three-foot span is perfectly counterbalanced on the pinnacle of the black and red form, an element which is both functional and beautiful. Movement is the key to much of Calder’s work, and in the present work it manifests itself in the full sweeping scope of the elongated arm. For not only does it allow for full 360 degrees of horizontal movement, but its pivoting position at the very apex of the sculpture also allows for a wide range of vertical movement too. When stationary, the mobile beckons the viewer to interact. A gentle breeze will set its carefully balanced elements in motion, introducing that magical element of chance and movement that makes Calder’s sculptures so enchanting. As he himself said, “When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises” (A. Calder, Calder, London, 2004, p. 261).
One of the key factors that distinguished the artist’s work throughout his life was his use of color. By only including a select array of strong colors, black, red, blue and the natural color of the metal in this case, Calder focuses attention on the purity of the form itself. Calder’s decision to work in the abstract followed a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930. After Calder first experienced the artist’s studio environment-as-installation first hand, he began to create his iconic mobiles. With the abstract shapes and wire structure he was able to create a unique sense of movement. The primary color palette of red, blue, yellow, white and black became iconic to Calder’s work. This enhances the work’s already dramatic silhouette, and coupled with the other, almost minimal aspects of the piece—such as the thin, narrow metal “tail”—seek to enhance the appreciation of grace and beauty.
Calder created his mobiles based on the principle of kinetics. The term mobile was coined by Marcel Duchamp after a visit to Calder’s studio; it has the dual meaning of movable in English and motive in French. Duchamp coined the term to describe the work as it was such a radical departure from traditional sculpture. Before 1930, sculpture was understood as a carefully planned solid mass. Calder rejected these western norms forever and by doing so, changed the very nature of art and its possibilities. “Alexander Calder joined sensibility with science, the empathetic with the engineered. Very few artists had done that before, and no artist since Leonardo da Vinci had so closely studied not only the magic but also the mechanics of forms moving through air” (J. Perl, “Sensibility and Science”, Calder and Abstraction, Los Angeles, p. 36). With the movement of the mobile, Calder’s talent truly shows as his sculpture remains compositionally beautiful from all perspectives as it changes shape.