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.