In 1942, Calder invented a new format for his sculpture, producing a series of works that his friends James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp would later refer to as constellations. These delicate, medium-sized, open-work constructions are composed of linear wire elements and small, carved biomorphic and geometric forms in painted and unpainted wood. Unlike Calder's mobiles, which are suspended in open space where their individual parts are gently propelled by random air currents, the constellations, including Vertical Constellation with Bomb,are stationary objects that generally sit on a tabletop or hang against a wall. Calder turned to wood in these and other works of the early 1940s partly in response to the scarcity of scrap metal during the war years, although the small forms that are featured in the constellation series originate in certain mobiles of the mid-1930s. Clear affinities with the work of various surrealists, including Joan Miró, Jean Arp, and Yves Tanguy, are found throughout the constellations. Pierre Matisse formalized this comparison in 1943, when he exhibited Calder's constellations at his New York gallery along with recent paintings by Tanguy (who had, by then, become Calder's neighbor in Connecticut). "It was a very weird sensation I experienced," Calder later recalled with regard to the 1943 exhibition, "looking at a show of mine where nothing moved."  Vertical Constellation with Bomb appeared in the Pierre Matisse exhibition as well as in Calder's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art later that year.
While Arp and Miró had also created series of "constellations," only the examples by Arp -- relief sculptures in painted wood, which he had been producing since the 1920s -- would have been known to Calder. As a metaphor for works consisting of small points or shapes distributed in loose but fixed configurations across a field or through space, the image of the "constellation" seems to have had special relevance to certain formal developments in abstraction between the two world wars. Allusions to cosmic space were, however, not new to Calder. Indeed, during the early 1930s, he had created a series of "Sphériques," standing sculptures that resemble orreries; in relation to these works, the artist later described the universe itself, with its "detached bodies floating in space," as "an ideal source of form."  With ten wooden elements (including the multicolored, falling "bomb"),Vertical Constellation with Bomb is among the most complex of Calder's constellations. Somewhat more architectonic than other works in the series, it bears a playful but striking resemblance to Alberto Giacometti's The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932 - 1933, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), a delicate construction of linear elements and carved forms (the anthropomorphic figure in Giacometti's sculpture is quite close to Calder's bomb form). The Vertical Constellation is also unusual for the apparent deliberateness with which the artist repeated some of the forms in sets of two or three, varying their dimension and thereby creating the vague impression of diminishing perspective along wire "sight lines."
(Text by Jeffrey Weiss, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. Quoted in Marla Prather, Alexander Calder 1898 - 1976 [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art] (Washington, 1998), 143.2. Calder, "What Abstract Art Means to Me," Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, no. 3 (Spring 1951), 8.
on largest triangular center element in monogram: CA
The artist; acquired 1974 by Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, New York; gift 1996 to NGA.
- Alexander Calder, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943, no. 83.
- Alexander Calder: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, no. 11, color repro. and cover.
- Alexander Calder: 1898-1976, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, no. 177, color repro.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Alexander Calder: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997: no. 11.
- Alexander Calder: 1898-1976. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998: no. 177.
Explore This Work
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.
With scrap metal scarce in the midst of World War II, Alexander Calder turned to hand carving small pieces of wood into mostly abstract shapes and attaching these—some painted, some unpainted—to a network of rigid wires. After consulting his friends Marcel Duchamp and curator James Johnson Sweeney, Calder decided to call the roughly 29 stationary works “Constellations.” These delicate tabletop constructions—Vertical Constellation with Bomb among the most complex—constituted what Calder called “a new form of art.” The Constellations afforded the artist another sculptural means, beyond his well-known mobiles, to investigate the organization of forms into open, abstract compositions.
Vertical Constellation with Bomb includes 10 wooden pieces, mostly geometric or biomorphic, connected by thin steel wires painted red. Five of the shapes are unpainted, and four are painted a deep blue. The falling “bomb” is a combination: the nose is unpainted, the body is blue and white, and the attention-grabbing fins are decorated with a pattern of brightly colored triangles—red, orange, blue, black, white, and yellow.
Astronomy interested Calder from an early age, and often he related his work to cosmic space. The Constellations derived from the artist’s early 1930s series of standing sculptures, “Universes,” that resembled orreries (astronomical devices that demonstrate the orbit of planets in the solar system); in relation to the Universes series, Calder described the universe itself, with its “detached bodies floating in space,” as “an ideal source of form.” Vertical Constellation evokes this idea of the cosmos through its broad disposition of variably sized wooden pieces, which define an expansive three-dimensional space. Likewise, the repetition of shapes—such as the two pieces projecting from the top of the sculpture, echoing larger versions below—suggests movement into distant horizons.
Calder’s Constellations share affinities with surrealist works by Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy, all of whom explored situating points or forms in loose configurations through space or across a painted field. Arp and Miró even called some of their works Constellations, highlighting the privileged place that cosmological metaphors held in the development of abstraction in the 1930s and 1940s.
Vertical Constellation’s direct treatment of a contemporary war subject is an anomaly in Calder’s work. The falling bomb doubtless appealed to him formally, but it is also conceivable that the artist sought to comment ironically on the violence at hand by transforming a deadly weapon into a colorful, toylike object.
About the Artist
Alexander Calder (1898–1976) came from a family of accomplished Philadelphia artists. His interests, however, veered more toward mechanical devices, and he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology (New Jersey) in 1919. In 1923 he enrolled at the famed Art Students League in New York, where he studied painting with John Sloan and George Luks. His first illustrated book, Animal Sketching (1926), derived from studies made at the Bronx and Central Park zoos.
In 1927 Calder went to Paris to study art. He started fashioning small wood and wire animals with movable parts and soon had assembled a hand-operated miniature circus. The Parisian avant-garde flocked to performances of Calder’s Circus, and he joined their circle. Inspired by a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930, Calder began to experiment with abstract constructions. He created his first mobiles in the early 1930s; the earliest were hand-cranked or motorized, but he quickly adopted free-floating designs. The mobiles synthesized Calder’s interests in engineering, astronomy, and kinetics, as well as his well-known sense of play.
After returning to the U.S. in 1933, the artist introduced biomorphic forms into both his kinetic and stationary sculpture. Already exhibiting widely on both sides of the Atlantic, he bought a farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1938, and then divided his time between the farm and living in France.
During World War II Calder employed more wood in his work due to a metal shortage (though he cut up an aluminum boat that he had constructed for his Roxbury pond and used the metal for several sculptures). In 1943 his Constellations were exhibited at a New York gallery together with paintings by the surrealist Yves Tanguy, who was Calder’s neighbor. Calder noted, “It was a very weird sensation I experienced, looking at a show of mine where nothing moved.” Later that year, at age 45, Calder became the youngest artist to date to have a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art.
Calder continued to produce innovative works during the remainder of his career, from whimsical jewelry, to theater sets, to the monumental sculptures seen widely in the U.S. and Europe.
- Kids' Feature: Vertical Constellation with Bomb