Skip to content
We will be closed Wednesday, June 19th in observance of Juneteenth
We will be closed Wednesday, June 19th in observance of Juneteenth

Alexander Calder's Jewelry Art and His Inner Circle of Modernist Patrons

Alexander Calder’s jewelry art is an important aspect of his contribution to Modernism. The recent exhibition of Calder’s sculpture and jewelry at the Museum of Modern Art New York features correspondence from the artist dating from the 1960s. The letter expresses his gratitude for the museum’s critical support for his work in the 1940s, when he had yet to achieve the critical recognition that was to come. Calder’s gift of a select group of jewelry to the institution toward which he felt such deep gratitude is a testament to the importance of jewelry in his oeuvre. 

1966 Alexander Calder letter to Alfred H. Barr, MOMA

Beginning in the late 1920s, Calder created jewelry in gold, silver and bronze both for friends and for sale by prominent New York galleries such as Willard and Perls. Typically structured of hand hammered wire, Calder’s jewelry is characterized by drama, wit and imagination, expressed through the poetry of the abstract line. The most extravagant pieces are touched with a humorous, absurdist flair, reflecting the milieu of brilliant surrealists and modernists Calder frequented in Paris, as well as the artist’s own exuberant spirit.  It ranges in form from kinetic works of body armor to wearable mobiles to brooches in the form of bunny ears. Photographs, such as that of Angelica Huston wearing the “Jealous Husband”, convey effectively how Calder’s jewelry transforms the wearer, combining strong design and talismanic power. His jewels are original in conception, and the hand that made them is unmistakable.  Wearers of Calder’s art jewelry take part in a performance in which the body itself is an essential, animating element. 

Anjelica Huston wearing The Jealous Husband, This necklace is held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (c. 1940), 1976 © Evelyn Hofer, New York

This important necklace exemplifies Calder’s modernist interpretation of timeless forms of ancient art from across the globe, expressed in a playful way, on an intimate scale. Here, Calder reinterprets the ancient form of the fringe necklace, common to many cultures, using the motif of the spiral. Calder was aware that spiraling wire ornaments, which appeared around the same time in unconnected Bronze Age civilizations throughout the world, were among humankind’s first forays into artful abstraction

Alexander Calder Artist-Designed Hammered Silver Spiral Necklace, Macklowe Gallery

Calder’s jewelry is widely represented in the collections of major museums including The Museum of Modern Art New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.

Among the artists and connoisseurs who wore jewelry designed and made by the artist were Peggy Guggenheim, Georgia O’Keefe, Joan and Pilar Miro, Bella Chagall, Teeny Matisse Duchamp, and Mary Rockefeller.

Jewelry bearing Calder’s cipher is rare.

Additional Notes on Provenance:

The various interrelated families represented in the provenance of this necklace - the Rockefellers, the Harrisons, and the Miltons - provided essential support, inspiration and patronage to the Modernist movement in art and architecture, both in this country and internationally.

Left: Robert Brackman (1898-1980), “Portrait of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Abby Greene Aldrich),” 1941, oil on canvas, 38 1/8 x 32 in. © Private Collection, Right: Frank O. Salisbury, 1947, Portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.. Natural Trust for Historic Preservation

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, is well-known for her sponsorship of modernists. Beginning in the 1920s, Abby began collecting the work of living artists, despite her husband’s distaste for contemporary art and the strict constraints he placed on her budget for such purchases. Along with women friends, she built the core of the collection that would later become the MOMA. Though his taste in art was traditional, John D. Rockefeller Jr. evolved into a proponent of modern architecture, beginning with his support of an anti-traditionalist design for Rockefeller Center, which incorporated the idea of commissioning art in the form of murals, reliefs and sculptures for the public to enjoy. Later, John Jr. donated the land on which the Museum of Modern Art and the United Nations stand.

Nelson Rockefeller was an important patron of the MOMA and modern artists: Left to right: Robert Motherwell, Frank O'Hara, René d'Harnoncourt, Nelson Rockefeller at the opening of the exhibitionRobert Motherwell, curated by O’Hara. September 18, 1965. Photograph by Allyn Baum. Photographic Archive, The Museum of Modern Art Archives

Abby's children, especially Nelson (vice president under Ford and governor of New York) and David (banker and philanthropist) shared their mother’s taste in art. While living among precious Asian porcelains and important 18th century furniture, they were also lifelong collectors of impressionist and post-impressionist art, including Picasso, Seurat, Monet, and Matisse and other Fauvists, in addition to abstract expressionists like Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning. Nelson in particular was an avid patron of emerging artists here and abroad. In addition to the MOMA, the family made donations to the Harvard Art Museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Fine art Museums of San Francisco. Nelson’s son Michael Rockefeller gave the Met his collections of the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The addition of these works to the Met’s collection, and the recognition of their global significance, advanced the Met’s ongoing evolution into an encyclopedic institution of world art. In addition to his service as chairman and lifelong donor, David left $200 million to the MOMA, the largest cash donation the museum has yet received.

All John Jr. and Abby’s children favored modern architecture. Laurence, a venture capitalist and conservationist, founded a chain of modernist hotels based on the concept of luxury minimalism and low environmental impact. A strict architectural modernist, David is known to have purchased and demolished a Seal Harbor, Maine, historic “cottage” called Keewaydin, a significant 1898 mansion with grounds landscaped by Olmsted. The historic structure, with its rough-hewn stone bulk and 35 foot tower, interfered with the sea view from David’s 1970s home above it on the hill, and contradicted his aesthetic preferences.

Among the large group of critical social institutions to which the family have donated are The American Red Cross, The Council on Foreign Relations, and Memorial Sloan Kettering. They also funded a significant expansion of the National Park System in the American West and the Caribbean.

Secondly, Wallace Harrison and Ellen Hunt Milton Harrison, the original owner of the necklace, are strongly associated with modern architecture and modern artists alike. As a very young man, Wallace Harrison came to New York and offered to work for architects McKim, Meade and White for free. Harrison’s employers soon noticed his innate abilities, and he was quickly placed on the payroll. In 1920, he spent a year studying in Paris at the École des Beaux-Art, where he learned about the ideas of Le Courbusier and the Bauhaus school. His first participation in a major project was in the planning and design for Rockefeller Center (1931-1933), a 12 acre project in mid town Manhattan considered one of the architectural triumphs of the Art Deco. Harrison had strongly campaigned for severe minimalism in the tower design, arguing for a vertical slab - an “uninterrupted cliff of stone”. This was a battle he lost.

Wallace Harrison's Modernist Estate, described by the architect as "an exercise in how to fit circles together", Half Hollow Hills, Long Island (Credit: Upper Left: Wallace and Ellen Hunt Milton Harrison. Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and LeCourbusier were frequent guests.

However, John  D. Rockefeller Jr. was convinced by Harrison’s impassioned arguments against the extensive exterior ornamentation that had been planned. Perhaps recalling the essays of Loos or the mantras of the Union of Modern Artists, whom he had encountered in Paris, Harrison argued at a planning meeting that the addition of such ornament would be “worse than criminal”. The young man’s vision of clean lines prevailed with John Jr., and the two became friends. As a further innovation, Rockefeller Center’s complex included commissions of public art. The project patronized contemporary artists including sculptors Lee Lawrie and Paul Manship, in addition to muralists Diego Rivera (whose work was subsequently destroyed), and Fernand Léger - though in the end he never painted the “cinematic” mural he had planned for Radio City Music Hall.

Wallace Harrison and J. Andre Fouilhoux, 1939 World's Fair, two monumental modernistic structures designed by architects , Trylon Perisphere and Helicline (credit: Library of Congress)

Harrison and his partners went on to design the architecture for the 1939 World’s Fair as well as the U.N. buildings. He commissioned the two Fernand Léger murals at the U.N. General Assembly. A prolific architect of skyscrapers, Harrison promoted the use of aluminum as a light, dry material. (Its limitations were only realized in the unprecedented fall of the Twin Towers.) In the 1960s, Harrison was chosen as chief architect to lead the development of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1959-1966). He designed 43 versions of the Opera before settling on the current building with its open, soaring interior and important group of public artworks. In addition to the two large murals by Marc Chagall adorning the lobby, which are visible from the plaza, the opera house contains murals by Raoul Dufy and sculpture by Mary Callery, a New York abstract expressionist. Additionally, Harrison exerted his diplomatic skills, honed during his brief service as a government negotiator under Nelson Rockefeller, to broker a compromise between the complex’s other star architects - Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen. The Met’s interior is considered an acoustic masterpiece. With its soaring arches and serpentine, suspended staircases, the Met expresses the weightlessness and flow of the un-amplified voice. Harrison was disappointed by some of the compromises made - the opera was smaller in scale than he had hoped - but his mission as an architect was clear. "I have always tried to move forward to something better—even at the risk of being wrong," Harrison said.

Fernand Leger, Les Plongeurs in the living room of Wallace K. Harrison. Installation view. Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.

Together with her husband, Ellen Hunt Milton Harrison befriended and patronized many of the modern artists who received the call to complete these public commissions. In her youth in New York and Paris, Ellen had met Léger and introduced him into the Harrison-Rockefeller circle. Alexander Calder and Le Courbusier were also frequent guests of the Harrisons. Over four years, Léger frequently worked at the couple’s Long Island summer house, a modernist masterpiece Harrison himself designed as an amusing “exercise in how to fit circles together.” Léger painted the walls and sculpted an abstract-form skylight to illuminate the couple’s soaring circular living room, which shares the aesthetic of Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. Alexander Calder is said to have mounted his first exhibition in the Harrisons’ home, and sketched Léger for the Harrisons just before the Cubist returned to France. The couple’s art collection included works by Alexander Calder as well as Léger's Cubist era paintings.  

It is easy to imagine the pleasure and care Alexander Calder would have taken in creating this necklace for Ellen Harrison.

Previous article Romancing the Stones
Next article Collecting At Home: Van Cleef & Arpels Cheveux D'Ange