20TH CENTURY ART
The Brass Family,1929.
Brass, wire, and painted wood.
66 3/8” x 40”x 8” (168.6 x 101.6 x 20.3 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art
2009 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Alexander Calder is one of America’s best-known sculptors of the 20th century. He’s famous for inventing the mobile, an art form in which suspended, abstract shapes move and balance in changing harmony. He also created large sculptures without moving parts from bolted together sheets of steel. These he called stabiles. But he began his career with wire. He developed a new method of sculpting by bending and twisting wire. The sculpture called The Brass Family is made of wire and he made it in 1929.
Alexander Calder loved the circus. In 1925 he had a two-week pass to attend Barnum and Bailey circus performances and he drew many illustrations of the circus. He was fascinated with the balance and precision of tightrope and trapeze artists, qualities that he would later incorporate into his sculpture. In 1927, while living in Paris he began building a complete circus of small performers from wire, cork, and bits of cloth and wood. Eventually his circus numbered over 70 figures and filled five suitcases. Calder would perform the circus for friends and other artists accompanied by music on a phonograph.
The sculpture known as The Brass Family is not part of the circus, but its subject matter is a family of circus acrobats. The family is made entirely of brass wire and it reflects one of Calder’s most famous quotes: “I think best in wire.”
He was the first artist to sculpt with wire, and he used wire the way a painter uses lines. He called it “drawing with metal.” He essentially drew three-dimensional figures in space with wire.
Now here’s a verbal description of The Brass Family.
The sculpture is five and a half feet tall and three and a half feet wide. The family is frozen at the moment when it has completed a balancing feat with the entire family balanced on top of one gigantic muscleman, the father. His feet are planted on a dark painted block of wood. All the figures are nude.
The father is facing you and he’s very muscular and constructed of heavy gauge gray wire.
There are six other figures in the family and they are all above him and made of lighter gauge wire.To get a sense of the composition, try this little exercise. Stand up and place your feet wide to carefully balance your weight evenly, as if you’re about to have a great weight placed on your shoulders. Bend your knees slightly. Then extend your arms straight out to the sides and clench your fists. You are now in the position of the muscleman.
Two smaller figures stand on his arms, each with a foot on his shoulder and a foot on his elbow. These two may be his older children or other family relatives. With their hands they’re holding a woman over their heads, who is lying horizontally. She may be the figures’ mother. A small child does a one-armed handstand balanced on her stomach. There are two more small children doing two-armed handstands on the muscleman’s clenched fists.
Many of Calder’s sculptures are about stability and balance. In the Brass Family, the man who anchors the family is rock solid. His graceful family arranged above him is more daintily constructed and more vulnerably posed – there is tension in the balancing act, but there is little sense of danger from anyone falling.
Calder’s genius profoundly changed the course of modern art and he influenced many artists. His works are playful and lyrical, but not frivolous. In the 1920’s, many people questioned whether Calder’s wire sculptures could be classified as art. But he continued to work with unconventional materials, intrigued by the potential for originality.