Alexander Calder's Nenuphar
December 16, 2014
In October, Alexander Calder's sculpture Gwenfritz, part of American Art's collection, was reinstalled outside the National Museum of American History. Karen Lemmey, American Art's sculpture curator speaks about another Calder sculpture which he gave to the museum at the same time.
Alexander Calder's sculpture Nenuphar takes its title from the Sanskrit word for water "lily." Apropos of its name, this sculpture "blossomed" out of another project, Calder's monumental stabile Gwenfritz, which rises over thirty-five feet above a pool of water. Although Gwenfritz was installed on the National Mall, on the west side of the National Museum of American History, it is part of the sculpture collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum. David Scott, director from 1964-1969, oversaw the commission and remained in close contact with Calder during the years leading up to the installation Gwenfritz. Their correspondence, archived in the museum's registrar files, illustrates the familiar tone of their ongoing exchange. For example, Calder casually addresses the director "Dear David" and signs off "au revoir, Sandy," as the artist was informally known.
In one letter dated 22 February 1968, Calder summarizes his progress report on Gwenfritz, by then nearing completion and awaiting shipment to the Smithsonian from the artist's studio in Sache, France. In the lower left corner of the first page of this letter, Calder writes, "I have made a stabile for the S. Inst.—'Nenuphar' which I will give to you," and includes a quickly drawn gestural sketch in ink. Although not much larger than a postage stamp, the sketch captures the key characteristics of the eight and a half foot-tall Nenuphar, notably the central element rising amidst whimsically curving projections that would be wrought out of sheets of steel.
Later that year, Calder gave the completed Nenuphar to the museum and it was displayed in the open-air courtyard that once stood at the center of the old Patent Office Building, which has housed the Smithsonian American Art Museum since 1968. During the the museum's extensive renovation, which included the construction of the canopied Robert and Arlene Kogod courtyard, Nenuphar was brought indoors and conserved by the museum's Lunder Conservation Center. Since the reopening of the museum in 2006, Nenuphar has been on view on the third floor in the Lincoln Gallery. Calder also gave the museum the maquette (a preparatory model) for the sculpture. Made of aluminum pieces that are held together with wire, it measures just 16 inches high and displays traces of fingerprints, perhaps even those of the artist himself. This maquette is on view in the museum's Luce Foundation Center.
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