Our Alexander Calder piece Object With Yellow Background is back home. It returned last month after being included in the largest retrospective of the artist’s work ever shown in Korea at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.
However, long before it was ready for its close-up in Seoul, the artwork didn’t always have such a glamorous life. “It’s kind of a rags to riches story because it came in for the lending collection,” says our registrar Pauline Sugino, who accompanied the work on its recent trips to and from Korea. “Then it ends up being shown at this top-ranking, world-class exhibition, which is a very unexpected turn for this piece.”
The work, which is comprised of objects hanging in front of a painted plywood panel that is mounted on a wall, came into the museum’s collection very early on in 1937. It had been a gift from museum founder Anna Rice Cooke’s daughter, Mrs. Theodore Cooke, who had someone purchase it directly from Calder himself.
Created in 1936, the piece was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism that same year. According to Leeum chief curator Tae Hyunsun’s essay “Art in Space, Sculpture in Time” in the Leeum’s Calder exhibition catalogue, the work was formally unprecedented and demonstrated Surrealist leanings though Calder never considered himself one.
But its significance hasn’t always been recognized. When it first came to the museum, the artwork went into the Lending Collection, which is an educational tool used to teach students about art and cultures. Items in lending don’t require the same level of kid-glove treatment a work in our permanent collection would afford. From 1937 to 1967, the piece was loaned out all over the state to various schools and organizations. As one might imagine, its life on the road had a detrimental effect on its condition.
In 1967, Calder’s work was moved to the permanent collection after museum staff realized its importance. “It’s fairly unusual to upgrade a work from the lending collection to permanent,” says Sugino. “It then went out on loan and has been on view occasionally. But much of the damage was prior to 1967.”
Fast forward to 2008, former curator of European and American art Michael Rooks notified the Calder Foundation in New York about the work and they became very interested in it.
Alexander Rower, Calder’s grandson and president of the Calder Foundation, visited the museum in 2009 to view the work. Rower recognized its importance and indicated it would be a terrific piece to include in the Leeum’s Calder retrospective because it shows the beginnings of his mobiles.
In order for it to be shown in Korea, it needed to be conserved. The Calder Foundation and the Leeum agreed to underwrite the conservation treatment. Sugino took it to New York in 2011 where it was worked on for about six months.
“It’s been elevated to the way it was supposed to be…what the artist intended originally for the color,” says Sugino. “It was pretty much an extreme makeover.”
When the Leeum’s Calder exhibition was postponed until 2013, Object With Yellow Background returned to Honolulu and bided its time until the show opened in July 2013.
Now that it’s back, when will it go on view? Curator of European and American art Theresa Papanikolas says to stay tuned. The historic work will likely be installed in our galleries soon. We can’t wait.