A lesson in balance and adaptation: The conservation of Alexander Calder’s Man-Eater with Pennants

Abigail Mack


Man-Eater with Pennants, an early monumental sculpture in Alexander Calder’s oeuvre, was commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and installed in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden from 1945 -1949. Only a few brief showings of the standing mobile followed; it was then put into storage for 50 years. In preparation for the exhibition, Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start (2021) the standing mobile required conservation. The treatment program evolved from a simple plan to replace failed paint coatings on the steel sculpture, to a much larger conservation effort which included structural repairs, a considerable metal re-forming campaign, and custom color formulations – all to reproduce the artist’s original intent.
Early modern painted outdoor sculpture often lacks documentation of the original color, gloss, and texture of the paint coat. Here, the original primer and paint choices of 1945 failed during outdoor exposure, prompting numerous repainting campaigns during Man-Eater’s five-year exhibition history. The colors were derived from extant discolored topcoats and these frequent overpaintings were impermanent. The subsequent five decades of inattention had the fortuitous effect of retaining a physical record of the paint layers and working methods. This gave us the opportunity for analysis and provided valuable information about Calder’s early color palette.
Development of Calder’s early palette of red, blue, and yellow colors for repainting was a collaboration between MoMA’s Conservators and Conservation Scientists, Monumenta Art Conservation & Finishing, MoMA curators, and the Calder Foundation. The colors were also compared to other examples of intact paint on indoor art from the 1940s. Custom colors that went through several modifications were produced by a commercial paint formulator. Each one of the color trials was vetted by all stakeholders until a consensus was reached. More in-depth description of the paint chemistry will be presented by Abed Haddad in Reviving Alexander Calder’s Man-Eater with Pennants: A Technical Examination of the Original Paint Palette.

While half a dozen photographs exist of the standing mobile installed at MoMA, only two showed the sculpture before use and time deformed it. Research into MoMA’s records and input from the Calder Foundation, coupled with new information that became apparent during the initial treatment phases, provided a more complete understanding of historic fabrication techniques, and identified patterns of wear. It also became clear that the only way the original posture and balance could be determined was by undertaking a number of partial installs of separate mobile sections ending with a full in-treatment install with all stakeholders present to approve the alignment of the mobile. The actual repair and repainting work required not only balancing multiple viewpoints but a combination of expertises, which ranged from scientific analysis and formulation of high-performance coatings to traditional hammer and anvil style metalworking. The flexibility to adapt the work plan to new information was essential to completing a successful treatment and installation.

2022 | Los Angeles | Volume 29