Calder Smartphone Tour: Bougainvillier

In the late 1940s, Alexander Calder developed sophisticated sculptures with pierced elements and interchanging relationships, the largest and most resolved of which is Bougainvillier. The construction of this vibrant masterpiece includes three wispy tendrils with mobile bursts, the lowermost of which is suspended by a handmade chain. Although it derives its title from the French word for the bougainvillea plant, this work—the most elegant and commanding sculpture on view in Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection at SAM—is non-objective.

Calder’s choices for titles, whether in English or French, are not assets for artistic interpretation. He was known to intuitively name his sculptures after they were created, based on “some vague association,” as he said. “Sometimes it’s the whole thing that suggests a title to me, sometimes it’s just a detail.”

Bougainvillier made its public debut on the heels of Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal 1946 essay, “Les Mobiles de Calder,” written by the French philosopher for the artist’s show at Galerie Louis Carré, Paris. Sartre’s words anticipated the complex environment created by a work like Bougainvillier, with its gestural lines projecting into unpredictable spaces:

“The forces at work are too numerous and complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to be able to foresee all their combinations. For each [mobile] Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it: time, sun, heat, and wind will determine each particular dance. Thus the object is always midway between the servility of the statue and the independence of natural events.”

Calder Foundation President Alexander S. C. Rower shares more excerpts from Sartre’s essay in the tenth stop of the free smartphone tour of Calder: In Motion. Tune in now via our SoundCloud or by scanning the QR code next to Bougainvillier in the exhibition’s galleries.

Bougainvillier, 1947

NARRATOR: Bougainvillier is one of the works in the Shirley Collection most frequently requested for exhibitions. It dates from 1947, a period when Calder was focusing on standing mobiles. Calder Foundation President Sandy Rower:

ALEXANDER S. C. ROWER: The frilly lines, these wires that come out in space—even when they’re not active, you feel a tremendous sense of movement through space—are why he called it Bougainvillier. His process of titling, of course: it wasn’t that he saw a Bougainvillea vine with the beautiful purple leaves and blossoms. He made a sculpture and then, looking back in retrospect, said it’s kind of the tendrils of a line, I’ll call it Bougainvillier

And the use of the title is not any kind of access into understanding or meaning of a work. You should really consider that the work has no meaning. But then you have to bring yourself forward and contribute and participate with the work in a way that the meaning is created. Calder always anticipated that the viewer was going to have an active role in not just experiencing his work, but in the viewer’s own interpretation.

NARRATOR: The year before Bougainvillier was made, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre explored these ideas in a seminal essay on Calder. Sartre captures the sense of what it’s like to experience a Calder sculpture. As he put it:

ALEXANDER S. C. ROWER: “Each of its twists and turns is an inspiration of the moment. In it you can discern the theme composed by its maker, but the mobile weaves a thousand variations on it. It is a little hot jazz tune, unique and ephemeral, like the sky, like the morning. If you miss it, it’s lost forever.”

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Installation view of Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection, Seattle Art Museum, 2023, © 2024 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

A Monumental Gift Goes On View: Inside Calder: In Motion at SAM

“How can art be realized? Out of volumes, motion, spaces bounded by the great space, the universe.”

– Alexander Calder

This November, SAM begins a long-term commitment to Alexander Calder, the American artist celebrated for revolutionizing sculpture with his renowned mobiles and stabiles. Earlier this year, SAM announced the incredible gift of more than 45 seminal Calder artworks by longtime supporters Jon and Kim Shirley. Their magnificent collection—one of the most important private holdings of Calder’s art—is the result of 35 years of thoughtful collecting. 

Now on view at SAM, Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection thematically highlights pieces from every decade of Calder’s career, dating from the 1920s to the 1970s. The exhibition also includes examples of Calder’s works on paper and an oil painting, among other media, representing the expansiveness of his oeuvre. Sections devoted to his artistic experimentation, natural forces and dynamics, and the artist’s lasting contribution to modern art are also featured.

“As truly serious art must follow the greater laws, and not only appearances, I try to put all the elements in motion in my mobile sculptures. It is a matter of harmonizing these movements, thus arriving at a new possibility of beauty.”

– Alexander Calder

To accentuate the artist’s exploration of height, scale, and movement, the exhibition is installed in the museum’s double-height galleries—a unique space for large-scale works with several overlooks from the floor above. The exhibition design captures a sense of movement, with an S-shaped, curved wall that wraps around the iconic 22-foot-tall sculpture Red Curly Tail (1970) and divides the galleries into a series of vignettes illuminating the exhibition’s themes and highlighting the lyricism of Calder’s creations.

Elsewhere on view are the oil painting The Yellow Disc (1958), a medium that Calder engaged with throughout his career but is not nearly as well known as his sculpture; Untitled (Métaboles) (1969), a mobile the artist created as part of a stage set for a ballet; and Fish (1942). The latter, a significant work from a rare series of mobiles created during and after World War II when metal was scarce, is made of wire framing and found materials.

The central gallery traces Calder’s career, highlighting his achievements across the miniature and the monumental. The expansive Toile d’araignée (1965), an airy, monochromatic mobile hovers over several artworks, including the masterful standing mobile Bougainvillier (1947).

“That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.”

– Alexander Calder

The final gallery considers the artist’s legacy, with works that demonstrate Calder’s accomplishments throughout his most productive decades and his impact on the evolution of modern art. It includes Untitled (1936), Little Yellow Panel (ca. 1936), Jonah and the Whale (ca. 1940), Untitled (ca. 1942), Constellation with Red Knife (1943), Yellow Stalk with Stone (1953), and Squarish (1970). This gallery also serves as a bridge into the museum’s modern and contemporary galleries.

The Shirley family’s generous gift will also inspire public programs exploring Calder’s artistic practice. Events are planned for both the Seattle Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park and will include talks, tours, performances, art-making workshops, and a family-friendly festival—stay tuned for more details!

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

This article first appeared in the October 2023 through January 2024 edition of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks!

Image: Bougainvillier, 1947, Alexander Calder, 1898-1976, sheet metal, rod, wire, lead, and paint, 78 x 82 x 54 in., Promised gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Nicholas Shirley.