Friday, July 06, 2018

Calder in Waterbury

Although the legendary sculptor Alexander Calder has been mentioned frequently in connection to the new artworks in downtown Waterbury, I haven't seen anyone delving into the history of Calder's Waterbury connections, so I figure I might as well do it here.

Alexander Calder at "Stegosaurus" dedication, Hartford, October 10, 1973
Collection of Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library
and Connecticut History Illustrated

If you don't have a background in art or art history, you might be wondering, why Calder? Why is he so famous? Why would five artists come all the way from Italy (twice) for the opportunity to create art in the same city in which many of his sculptures were made?

When Calder died in 1976, The New York Times ran his obituary on the front page, taking up a quarter of the page at the top. Calder was the most famous artist in the United States. Four decades later, Calder remains one of the most famous artists here and worldwide. His work can still be found in public spaces all over the country, from airports to plazas. The Times obituary (12 November 1976) referenced "the irresistible sense of fun that bubbled up in his work."

Calder's art is known for its sense of whimsy and wit, as well as for the highly skilled engineering and draftsmanship that made it possible. His unique style is famed throughout the world, inspiring countless artists to follow in his footsteps.

Calder immersed himself in the innovative Paris art scene during the 1920s and '30s, where he developed his revolutionary concept: to create art that moves. This is a deceptively simple idea, one we take for granted today, since we now see it everywhere; but it was both radical and brilliant. The history of art is filled with thousands of years of art that does not move; paintings, prints, sculptures that are static. Thanks to Calder, we now have kinetic art, art that moves.

Before Calder, if something moved, if it was mobile, it was considered to be a mechanical device, not a work of art. Calder's mobiles are beautiful works of art, each piece carefully balanced to move freely, as if floating on air. They move as if they were alive; some are reminiscent of a fish or a long tail slowly undulating in the air; others evoke the movements of the planets in orbit around the sun; and still others are reminiscent of nothing at all, expanding our subconscious concept of reality. In all of these, the mobiles bear no real physical resemblance to anything in the natural world; what Calder has captured is the essence of motion. The mobiles range in size from small works that would fit in any home, to monumental public artworks.

Alexander Calder, Double Gong, 1953
(60 in. x 132 in. x 132 in.) 

The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Calder also made standing mobiles, lovely table-top mobiles that balance on an equally artistic stand, and stabiles, monumental abstract sculptures that stay still. The stabiles are often surprising and whimsical, despite their towering size.

Calder's work includes jewelry, paintings, prints, toys, wire sculptures, and even the decoration of a few airplanes for Braniff International.

Braniff International advertisement featuring Calder's DC-8
From The Braniff Pages

Calder in Connecticut

Calder moved to western Connecticut in 1933, when he bought an old farm in Roxbury. He was one of many artists to move into former farmhouses in Connecticut, where they could be close to New York City, but enjoy the rural life. Equally important, these were artists fleeing from Europe and the threat of war. Paris had been the vibrant heart of the art world; with war on the way, many of the artists left Paris for New York City, settling into affordable rural homes outside the city.

     There were so many articles in the European press about war preparations that we thought we had better head for home. Louisa hoped to have a baby in tranquility and Europe did not seem tranquil at the time. ...

     My formula was that we wanted a modest house with a barn out of which to make a studio. 
(Alexander Calder, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, Pantheon Books, 1966, pp. 142-143)  

Alexander Calder at his Roxbury studio, October 1, 1973
Collection of Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library and Connecticut History Illustrated

Western Connecticut became a hub of some of the world's greatest artists. American artists who settled here included Calder, Kay Sage, and Peter Blume. European artists included Yves Tanguy, Arshile Gorky, André Masson, and Pavel Tchelitchew. Even prominent and influential art collectors were here: Julian Levy, James Thrall Soby, Chick Austin, Jr., and Kirk Askew. Other artists visited those that lived here. What had once been primarily farm towns became a hotbed of the art world.

The artists shared ideas and art with one another. The Calders were friends with surrealist artists Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy. Calder gave them gave a delightful small mobile made in 1939 which hung in the living room of the Tanguys' Woodbury farm house. The mobile was given to the Mattatuck Museum in 1964, part of a large bequest by Kay Sage Tanguy. The museum had the mobile on view in its galleries until relatively recently. I have heard that the museum sold the mobile a few years ago; I don't know where it is now, but it is no longer included in the museum's online database.

Calder mobile given to the Tanguys in 1939;
bequeathed to the Mattatuck Museum in 1964

Alex Darrow photo of the Sage-Tanguy home with their Calder mobile in the corner of the room.
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

The Calders were also friends with (and neighbors of) playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote the following tribute in 1976:
     Sandy [Alexander Calder] disarmed us. When we were with him we tended to see life as he saw it….His spirit tended toward light rather than darkness, the joys of creation rather than laboriousness. And so he was a temptation to believe that life was not necessarily more profoundly lived in grief and disillusion…. 
     His hands were so deft and unhesitantly sure. He seemed more like someone at play than an artist. It only slowly dawned on me that this work of cold wire and sheet metal was sensuous, that the ever-shifting relationships within a mobile were refracting the same elemental and paradoxical forces in physics and human relations. … 
     There was something noble in [Sandy and his wife Louisa] and in their house. Is it not a great thing for us all, his gifts to us in a way, that his personal qualities of directness, cheerfulness, his wit and his joy in being alive should also have been so infused in his art?…His mobiles float above our heads like flocks of birds, things to catch light, to flutter with the wind, to arrest the rain and they are all Sandy saying in a thousand ways, “Yes and Yes and Yes and Yes.”

Calder built his studio our of a barn in Roxbury. His small-scale sculptures could be made there, but his monumental work required some assistance. Three local companies fabricated Calder's large mobiles and stabiles: Waterbury Iron Works and Segre Iron Works in Waterbury, and Gowans-Knight in Watertown.

Waterbury Iron Works was the first that Calder worked with; during the late 1950s, when Calder's success led to the need for multiple commissions to be completed simultaneously, he began using Segre's and Gowans-Knight to keep up with the work load. 

Calder's interactions with the local metalworking companies had a ripple effect on people in the region. Factory workers, farmers, and immigrants with limited art experiences, who were more familiar with and comfortable with 19th century realism than modern abstraction, could view some of the world's premiere abstract sculptures right here in Connecticut.

In 1949, for example, the Women's Club of Woodbury hosted an exhibit at the Woodbury Town Hall featuring the work of Calder, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, and Naum Gabo, along with several accomplished local artists such as George Marinko. Although mentioned in the Hartford Courant, the exhibit's importance was lost on the newspaper, which ran the story in the society pages, giving nearly equal weight to the National Horse Show (Betty Barrett, Society Editor, "Artists' Works On Display; Local Entries In Horse Show," Hartford Courant, 30 Oct 1949).

The Waterbury Republican newspaper was far more hip to modern art: two years earlier, in 1947, the Republican ran a large article, with four photographs, highlighting what must have been a truly spectacular exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum. Talcott B. Clapp, then a writer for the newspaper who had the unparalleled opportunity to interview the great modern artists living in the region,  was the guest curator for the exhibit, selecting more than a dozen works by Calder for display. In the article, Calder was quoted as describing his mobiles as "a composition of shapes and spots in various colors deployed in space and capable of movement in relation to each other," and his stabiles as "a composition of warped planes intended to be at rest." (Lyall H. Hill, "Calder Show Fresh and Exciting," Waterbury Republican, Sunday Morning Edition, 16 March 1947)

The reviewer for the Waterbury Republican declared that Calder's art "has taken the mustiness, virtuosity and convention out of sculpture and replaced them with the spontaneity and individuality of curved steel wires and colored discs that twirl from above; or branch, tree-like, from a stabile base."

Top half of exhibit review by Lyall H. Hill,
"Calder Show Fresh And Exciting," Waterbury Republican, 16 March 1947

Silas Bronson Library Microfilm

"Composition" in the Waterbury Republican, 16 March 1947
Silas Bronson Library microfilm 

The Calder artworks exhibited at the Mattatuck in 1947 as indicated in the Waterbury Republican are as follows:

"White Flower -- Black Leaves," mobile;

"Five Red Arcs," mobile;

"Little White," mobile;

"The Brass Family," wire sculpture;

"Elephant with Truncated Trunk," wood sculpture;

"Black Bottle," stabile;

"Spiny," stabile;

"Apple Monster," painted wood [made in 1938];

"A Number of Black Discs," mobile;

"Red Bamboo Shoots," mobile;

"Small Black Constellation;"

"Giraffe Mobile," standing mobile;

"The Helmet," oil painting;

"The Big Face," oil painting;

"Three Gentlemen," oil painting;

"Composition," oil painting.

Waterbury Iron Works

Calder began his relationship with Waterbury Iron Works during the 1940s. As his work grew larger in scale, he needed help fabricating the massive pieces of metal, and the Waterbury region was full of metal-working shops.

Waterbury Iron Works began in 1914, started by German immigrants, Julius L. Kipp, Anna S. Kipp, and Valentine Brehm. They were located on Porter Street, near South Leonard Street.

In 1916, Leonard Kipp, formerly the chief mechanical engineer at Chase Metal Works, joined Waterbury Iron Works, allowing them to do larger scale steel work. (The Iron Age, 16 November 1916, p. 1147)

Julius Kipp died in 1936, and his widow, Louise, took over as president of the company. The Kipp family continued to run Waterbury Iron Works until 1945 or '46, when new owners came in.  The new president of Waterbury Iron Works was Arthur E. B. Tanner, whose father was president of Waterbury Foundry Company. With him were Orville D. Crooker, vice president; Mary A. Dolan, treasurer; and Joseph Clapps, secretary (Waterbury City Directory, 1948, p. 787).

At Waterbury Iron Works, Calder worked closely with Liberato Ieronimo, nicknamed "Chippy," the shop foreman and head layout man.  Calder would provide a maquette, a small model, and full-size paper templates of each piece of the final work (Amanda Ann Douberly, "The Corporate Model: Sculpture, Architecture, and the American City, 1946-1975," Dissertation Presented  to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin, 2015, p. 121). Ieronimo would oversee the fabrication and travel with Calder to install the works in their new homes.

     In the Waterbury Ironworks, I was aided by Chippy Ieronimo, and in the other Waterbury shop, by Carmen Segree [sic]. I say I was aided, but actually I took the place of the helper and worked under their direction, keeping my eye open to achieve the desired result. 
     A helper I was, except for using the sledge. Chippy tried me out once and our hammers met in mid-air--so he kicked me out of that job. 
(Alexander Calder, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, Pantheon Books, 1966, pp. 255-258)  

For a great photo of Ieronimo and Calder installing an artwork in Los Angeles, visit the LA County Museum of Art blog, Unframed.

Liberato "Chippy" Ieronimo
Photo added to Find a Grave by Roseann Ieronimo Melillo

Ieronimo (1907-1992) was born in Volturara Appula, Provincia di Foggia, Puglia, Italy. He arrived in the United States in 1924 and quickly found work as a shop hand at Waterbury Iron Works.

Other Italian immigrants also found employment at Waterbury Iron Works, including brothers Paul and Joseph Clapps, who were descended from countless generations of Avigliano blacksmiths (Joanna Clapps Herman, The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America, p. 30).  Joseph's son, Peter, was employed at Waterbury Iron Works during the Calder era. Peter's daughter, Joanna Clapps Herman, shared a memory of her family "dropping in" on Calder during the 1950s in her 2011 memoir, The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America:

An avuncular looking man with tousled hair greeted us with warmth and ushered us inside where a great light poured in on a bewildering topography. The room we came into was so unlike any interior I'd ever seen that at first I could see only my own confusion. There was the unruly chaos exactly opposite to the expected order of the '50s. But he was famous, I knew that. Calder's mobiles made of strange shapes and colors were hanging from the slanted open rafter beams. There were objects made of pieces of broken glass, broken ceramic shards, primitive shapes of sticks, rusty pieces of metal, wood, scraps of tattered cloth, old coffee cans. But he was an artist, I knew too.

Arthur E. B. Tanner (1909-1987) was president of Waterbury Iron Works and former managing Director of Lux Clock Co. He was also associated with Waterbury Foundry Co., Woodbury Telephone Co., Philadelphia Steel Abrasives Co., and Citizens & Manufacturers National Bank. Tanner served in the Connecticut House of Representatives from about 1940 until 1955, becoming speaker of the House from 1953 to 1955. Tanner was a Waterbury native, attending Crosby High School. (Obituary, Hartford Courant, 18 November 1987)

Arthur E. B. Tanner, 1953
Connecticut State Register and Manual, 1953, p. 105

Waterbury Iron Works fabricated the Calder mobile, "Flight," at Kennedy International Airport (then Idlewild) in 1957.

Calder's "Flight" at Idlewild Airport, 1957. Fabricated by Waterbury Iron Works.
Photo from Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Calder gave a small mobile to Waterbury Iron Works while they were working on "Flight." In 1979, the Tanner family donated the mobile to the Mattatuck Museum, where it was on exhibit until relatively recently.

I had the pleasure of interacting with the mobile while I worked at the museum, carrying it from the gallery to the photo studio. Its movement is wonderfully fluid and graceful, very much like a living creature swimming elegantly through the sea.

Alexander Calder, Mobile, 1957 -- Given to Waterbury Iron Works in 1957
Collection of Mattatuck Museum; Photograph by Randy Clark

Segre's Iron Works

Segre's was founded in 1917 by Nicholas Segretario, who had learned how to make ornamental iron before he came here from Italy (Michael Knight, "Constructing a Calder is a Labor of Love," NY Times, 9 Feb 1974). He was succeeded in the business by his son, Carmen Segretario.

Frank Pisani was the foreman at Segre's during the 1970s and was quoted as saying that “Mr. Calder is like God to us ... I got a lot of respect for him. If he says it isn't right, we do it over and over again until he's pleased with it.” (Michael Knight, "Constructing a Calder is a Labor of Love," NY Times, 9 Feb 1974) Pisani would later start his own company in Naugatuck. Pisani Steel Fabrication was founded in 1988 by Frank and his son Giuseppe "Joe" Pisani.

At Segre's, Calder fabricated the mobile top to "La Spirale," made for the UNESCO World Headquarters in Paris in 1958. Carmen Segretario flew to Paris with Calder to help with the installation (UNESCO Works of Art Collection website, accessed 3 June 2018).

Segre's advertisement, Waterbury City Directory, 1946, p. 124

Calder's 53-foot tall Flamingo sculpture was one of several that sat outside Segre's before it was shipped out for installation. The New York Times wrote that it was like "a monster intent on devouring Waterbury, a giant orange creature perches menacingly above Interstate 84 here." (Michael Knight, "Constructing a Calder is a Labor of Love," NY Times, 9 Feb 1974). A smaller version also stood outside Segre's for a time.

"Flamingo," photographed from Reidville Drive by Robert B. Hicks, 1973
Slide digitized and posted online by Mckay Lodge Laboratory Fine Art Conservation

Calder's "Flamingo," 1974, at Federal Center Plaza,
John C. Kluczynski Federal Building, Chicago, Illinois.
Fabricated by Segre's Iron Works in Waterbury.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007; Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

The Calder stabiles that stood outside Segre's Iron Works on Harper's Ferry Road are remembered fondly by people who drove by during the 1960s and '70s. It was a really special thing for the public to be able to see these world-famous artworks just sitting by the roadside.

Segre's Iron Works. Photo by Robert B. Hicks, 1973.
Slide digitized and posted online by Mckay Lodge Laboratory Fine Art Conservation

Stephen Segretario, son of Carmen, would later be embroiled in an art world scandal when it was discovered that a supposed Calder sculpture, "Two White Dots," was made at Segre's after Calder died. Segretario insisted that it was not a forgery, saying "It's not a fake. It's Calder's. It was made from an original work. The foundry drew up the drawings from the maquette. It wasn't conceived in his lifetime, but it was done in the same process as everything was done in the foundry." (Ann Marie Somma, "The Calder Work That Wasn't," Hartford Courant, 12 March 2006)

Despite Stephen Segretario's claim that "Two White Dots" was not a fake, it was made in 1982 and sold with documents stating that it had been fabricated "in or about" 1974, "under the supervision and direction of Artist." The piece was sold and resold, until it was purchased by Jon Shirley, a prominent Seattle art collector who sought authentication from The Calder Foundation. When the piece was shown to be fraudulent, Shirley was reimbursed by the art gallery that sold it to him; the gallery then proceeded to sue Stephen Segretario. Segretario filed for bankruptcy protection in 1996 and shut down Segre's Iron Works. (Somma, Hartford Courant, 12 March 2006)


By 1958, Calder had so many commissions that he was relying on three shops to help fabricate his work. In his autobiography, Calder commented:
    When I embarked on stabiles and heavier objects, following Noyes's purchase of "The Black Beast," I often worked in several metal shops at the same time. In 1958, I had three metal shops working for me, two in Waterbury and one, ten miles away, in Watertown. I got a sense of being a big businessman as I drove from one to another.  
    In one shop, I was making the head of the object for UNESCO, "The Spiral"; in another shop, I was making the forty-five-foot mobile for Idlewild; in Watertown, in the third, I was making "The Whirling Ear" for the Brussels Fair. It is still in Brussels, a gift of the United States. (Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, Pantheon Books, 1966, pp. 255-258

Gowans-Knight started in 1952 and today makes fire apparatus and equipment. "The Whirling Ear" was on display in Brussels for a number of years before being dismantled and placed in storage. In 2000, it was restored and placed back on view in a public square (source: plaque near sculpture).

Photograph of "The Whirling Ear" by Lee Allan Kane, "Road Trip Europe," 2014

Calder on Grand Street

In 1976, just before his death, Calder loaned one of his artworks to the City of Waterbury Parking Authority for exhibit at the Buckingham Ramparage at the corner of Grand and Bank Streets ("City Exhibiting Calder Sculpture," Waterbury American, 9 September 1976). The sculpture, "The Kite That Never Flew" was a stabile fabricated at Segre's. The stabile was returned to the Calder estate the following spring.

Calder's "The Kite That Never Flew" at the Buckingham Ramparage on Grand Street.
Photograph published in the Waterbury American, 20 May 1977
Silas Bronson Library microfilm

Calder, "The Kite That Never Flew," 1967
The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Calder at the Mattatuck Museum

In addition to the two Calder mobiles that used to be on display at the Mattatuck Museum, the museum has a small standing mobile acquired in 1999 and a handful of works on paper by Calder. The standing mobile was made by Calder for Fred Davis at Waterbury Iron Works in 1957, while they were working on the large mobile for Idlewild Airport. It is currently on view at the museum.

Calder, Standing Mobile made for Fred Davis, Waterbury Iron Works, 1957
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

The same standing mobile seen from the other side -- one side of the base is red, the other is blue. The mobile rests on the tip of the base, a slight dimple in the arm keeping it in place while allowing it to pivot.

Alexander Calder, "Composition," 1957
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

In 2006, Mattatuck Museum Curator Ann Smith secured a loan of Calder's "Giant Critter" from The Calder Foundation. The 17.5 foot tall sculpture stood smiling in the museum's courtyard for at least six years. More recently, "Giant Critter" was on view in 2017 at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Calder's "Giant Critter" at the Mattatuck Museum, 2006

Sources for this blog post include exhibit scripts by Ann Y. Smith, used with permission. I am eternally grateful for Ann's calm wisdom, guidance, and tutelage during our time together at the Mattatuck Museum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great read. My dad worked with Calder on the Whirling Ear sculpture. He was thrilled to see and hear what you've posted. Thanks