ALEXANDRA CALDER, Untitled, c. 1960, incised with the artist’s monogram on the base sheet metal, brass, wire and paint, 26 × 38.1 × 12.7 cm. Courtesy Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery. 

Imagining the Universe

Alexander Calder

Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery
USA Hong Kong

Have you ever wondered about the mysteries of the universe? Generations ago—when astronomers and philosophers thought the Earth was the center of the cosmos, and that the sun revolved around it—there was little comprehension of the infinite expanse of the universe and all that was possibly within it. American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976) once famously said: “The universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.” In a two-week-long selling exhibition at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, a selection of 20 paintings and kinetic mobile sculptures by Calder, spanning from the late 1920s to the time of his death in 1976, are being presented in a survey show titled “Imagining the Universe.” Themed around the cosmos, the display of works exudes a strong sense of enigmatic beauty.

A renowned creator of mobile sculptures, Calder was captivated by the kinetics of external force, such as wind, and its ability to make an object seemingly move forever. In Untitled (c. 1960), one of six mobiles presented in the exhibition, five thin wires with painted circular discs are attached to one side of a thicker, brass wire, which has a spiral formed on its opposing end. All perched precariously atop a black, metal sheet base in the shape of a downward sloping curve, the mobile seemingly represents our solar system: the larger, golden brass spiral is the sun and the equilibrium counterbalancing the planets are symbolized by the small discs. It is prodigious how something as massive as our solar system could be compressed into a small sculpture less than half a meter in height and width. Untitled is a glimpse into the creative mind of Calder and an illustration of his capability to harness his imagination.

Installation view of “Alexander Calder: Imagining the Universe,” at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, 2015. Photo by Karena Lo for ArtAsiaPacific. 

ALEXANDER CALDERFour Spirals and Six Dots, 1971, gouache and ink on paper, 74.9 x 109.9 cm. Courtesy Sotheby’s Gallery Hong Kong. 

ALEXANDER CALDER, Pyramids and Sun on Target, 1973, gouache and ink on paper, 74.9 × 109.9 cm. Courtesy Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery. 

Continuing Calder’s obsession with spirals—a symbol of hypnosis and a form that is reoccurring in nature—is Four Spirals and Six Dots (1971), which depicts, quite literally, four spirals, that are each painted in gouache in a different color and size, with black dots partially overlapping the spirals. In outer space, planets and galactic debris revolve around cosmic objects, usually circling one with the strongest gravitational effect, which is often a star. In Calder’s painting, the spirals are manifestations of different galaxies and the six black dots represent stars that have collapsed inward and transformed into black holes. Black holes are known for possessing gravitational pulls that are so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape its forces. Calder’s painting alludes to the significant role and power of stars—such as our sun, which is both terrifying and beautiful. It gives viewers a sense of where they stand in this universe, and how much more there is to it than our planet alone.

In his later gouache works, such as Pyramids and Sun on Target (1973) and Nuages (1976), Calder attempted to merge the three-dimensional with the two-dimensional, on the same plane, to create a sense of depth and perspective. Both paintings contain tetrahedrons in the form of pyramids, which are contrasted against flat circles. These works embody a passion for geometry and physics—perhaps they represent his vision of the universe, and his imagination, which one may be left to think had no boundaries.

Calder’s artworks earned him respect as a modern artist, which continues four decades after his death. Through his kinetic mobile sculptures and boldly-colored paintings, he is remembered for his lively personality. Calder’s outlook on the universe and its mysteries will leave viewers with a changed perception. In the end, one may say Calder achieved his ultimate objective—that of creating his own universe.

“Alexander Calder: Imagining the Universe” is on view at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery until September 25, 2015.