Secrets of Storage: Alexander Calder’s Tapestries

by Emelia Lehmann, Registration, Inventory, & Research Intern; History AB 2018

last edited on Thu. September 20 2018

In one of the darkest, most difficult to reach corners of storage lies a pile of mysterious tapestries, put up high on the top shelf and draped in dark sheets.

While undertaking my summer internship project, these elusive works remained out of sight and reach until finally, in late July, I got up the courage to climb a ladder and see what they were. What I found was a beautiful set of fourteen tapestries, brightly colored and intricately woven with abstract shapes. When I began my research on the works, however, I came across something even more inspiring and beautiful than the works themselves: a history of cultural exchange and artistic collaboration which produced these tapestries and brought them here to the Smart Museum.

One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Alexander Calder gained international fame for his use of movement and color in sculpture. However, Calder, was much more than a sculptor—he also produced jewelry, drawings, and even decorated airplanes! Calder also experimented with weaving and fabric, and occasionally enlisted weavers to help him transform his sculptures and drawings into this medium. Like his other works, his tapestries embrace geometric designs, dynamic shapes and an overall feeling of motion and movement. Even in this more fixed, stationary form, Calder managed to infuse these weavings with fluidity and momentum characteristic of his artistic style.

While Calder did design and produce a small number of weavings and tapestries, they remain relatively rare, making the examples in the Smart Museum’s collection quite remarkable. The fourteen tapestries I uncovered in the Museum’s storage are from a limited edition project undertaken by Calder in the 1970s, with only 100 editions of each of the fourteen different designs produced. However, in addition to their beauty and novelty, these pieces possess a fascinating story behind their inspiration and creation. These works are significant not only because of Calder’s own fame and influence, but because they represent a moment of international collaboration and the healing power of art.

In 1972, a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua and Guatemala, killing thousands of people and devastating the landscape. To raise funds for those affected, New York art collector Kitty Meyer enlisted artists around the globe to help with a relief project. Alexander Calder was one artist to join the effort, seeing it as an opportunity to promote the arts and culture of this impacted community. He designed a series of tapestries, including the set now owned by the Smart, to be produced by Guatemalan weavers affected by this natural disaster. Working closely with the weavers, Calder altered his designs to fit the local materials available to these artisans, trading out white for the natural beige color of maguey fiber common in the region and adopting the braided weaving style used by these weavers. As a result, these tapestries represent a marriage of ideas and cultures: Calder’s vivid colors and organic shapes and traditional Central American weaving techniques and materials. Hundreds of local weavers and villagers became involved, gathering hemp for the tapestries, dying of the materials in Calder’s brilliant colors, and participating in the weaving process. The project was truly a village-wide endeavor. As a result, it brought work and money to the region, and also promoted Guatemalan materials and craftsmanship on a global scale.

The international response to these wall hangings has been quite remarkable. While they haven’t received the same fame and sale prices as Calder’s sculptures, these works have made their way into numerous museum collections around the world. The story of these works, a partnership between artists and local craftspeople, therefore speaks across cultures and generations. As a result, these tapestries represent not only Calder’s artistic vision, but an incredible collaboration between this artist and a community struggling to regain autonomy and stability in the face of natural disaster.

This is the second in the Secrets of Storage series, where Emelia shares findings uncovered during her collections internship. The first post touched on her research into an unexpected element of Chicago’s architectural history