Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976)

The Big Wheel, 1970
Gouache on paper, 29 1/2 x 42 1/4 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney E. Cohn

Two critical leaders of modernism, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, produced work at the end of their careers that elegantly encapsulated their individual aesthetic innovations. Similarly, The Big Wheel, made six years before the artist died, echoes Alexander Calder's earlier work while also reflecting his creative evolution over time.

Calder’s initial fame depended largely upon his Cirque Calder, a traveling re-creation of a circus made of leather, wire, cloth, and other found materials. When he introduced the work, in Paris in 1926, the artist manipulated his fanciful figures so that they seemed to perform an impromptu big-top routine, which might last as long as two hours. Encouraged by this initial success, he made more wire sculptures, some of which represented celebrities such as the expatriated American entertainer Josephine Baker. These caricatures in wire are at once spontaneous and studied, witty and serious.

The bold colors and patterns of The Big Wheel vividly evoke the sense of standing inside a large circus tent and looking up. The white circle represents the hole at the top, and the swirled patterns in red, blue, gold, and black are the sewn-together tent sections. The black borders of the colored sections, reminiscent of the wire Calder used in numerous sculptures, animate the work, rather like spokes in a wheel.

Calder frequently incorporated actual motion into the kinetic sculptures he began fashioning in 1931. Initially, they moved in response to a hand crank or a small motor. By the time they were known as mobiles, Calder was constructing them so that their motion depended upon the circulation of air. Consisting of biomorphic, flat forms attached to wire and then to a metal spine, these randomly moving sculptures made no reference to the circus and seemed unrelated to the artist’s earlier subject matter. The abstract quality of The Big Wheel, as well as the evocation of movement implied by both the title and the swirling forms, recall his kinetic sculptures.

Calder also created several sculptures for public buildings and outdoor spaces; these were so large that neither architecture nor nature could overshadow his work. Typically, he welded boldly colored, unadorned simple shapes onto a metal framework. The same shapes and colors he favored for his mobiles and sculptures are the basis for the two-dimensional Big Wheel.

--Timothy R. Rodgers

Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976), 'The Big Wheel,' 1970. Gouache on paper, 29 1/2 by 42 1/4 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney E. CohnJPEG Image