Alexander Calder's "Gwenfritz": Rededicating a modernist icon

Alexander Calder’s Gwenfritz on the day of its rededication

Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz on the day of its rededication 

On Halloween day, a gorgeous 40-foot-tall black specter mysteriously rematerialized at its old haunts on the west lawn of the National Museum of American History. In a simple rededication ceremony, Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz was twice blessed, first by the Smithsonian American Art museum, to whose collections it belongs, and once again by the National Museum of American History, whose land it once again graces in its original location.

It was a splendid reminder of Smithsonian inter-museum collaboration. But in a way, this split institutional responsibility obscures how people actually understood the relationship among art, technology, and our nation's history when the building opened to the public 50 years ago under the name of the Museum of History and Technology. The museum's origins go back to the rise of the modern movement at the turn of the last century, when art, technology, and design found new synergy. 

Rendering of museum showing columns, figures, and sculpture

Undated rendering of Mall façade of Museum of History and Technology by architect Walker O. Cain 

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation provided the funds for the commissioning and setting of the Calder stabile at the museum. In his rededication remarks, Calvin Cafritz, president of the Foundation, revealed that his mother Gwendolyn, after whom Gwenfritz is named, first became hooked on Calder after encountering his work in the American pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. 

The Whirling Ear by Alexander Calder was a commission made for the pool in front of the United States Pavilion at the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition. The sculpture was made by Calder at Gowans-Knight in Watertown, Connecticut. Photograph by Flickr user "emmapastie" via the creative commons license.

Gwenfritz was originally installed at its west lawn location in 1969, five years after the museum opened its doors to the public, but we know it was part of the original plan. Architect Walker Cain of McKim, Mead, and White was employed to design the setting for this magnificent sculpture. From the start of his commission, Cain had the difficult task of designing a modernist building that fit in with the classical colonnaded structures surrounding it on the Mall, especially those across Constitution Avenue on the Federal Triangle. His solution was, in his words, to produce "a building which is classical in definition, and the detailing is modern."  Gwenfritz was key to his architectural strategy. Calder's abstract piece, revered as a modernist icon, was one of the first abstract public sculptures in Washington.

The museum was founded as a monument to modernity based on reigning ideals of technological progress. Gwenfritz, the creation of a mechanical engineer turned artist, belonged to this building as much as the John Bull locomotive on the museum's first floor. In fact, the whole building, inside and out, was conceived as a modernist project, an integrated work of art. 

Rendering in pencil of Museum of History and Technology

Rendering of the Museum of History and Technology by Hugh Ferriss, architect and the era's foremost delineator of buildings 

Early renderings show abstract sculptures evocative of scientific instruments surrounding it on its terrace. Most were omitted from the final plan because of budget cutbacks, but, fortunately, Gwenfritz remained, along with Jose de Rivera's Infinity at the museum's Mall entrance, which Walker Cain interpreted as an abstract orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system—symbolizing the technical and scientific ideals of the age.

Photo of the museum in fall, with red leaves and "Infinity" sculpture, as a group exits the building

Jose de Rivera's Infinity outside the museum

At the rededication, we heard about Calder's training as a mechanical engineer at Stevens Institute of Technology, his connections with abstract artists in Paris, and Einstein's interest in his art. Calder once opined: "How does art come into being? Out of volumes, motion, space carved out within the surrounding space ... Out of vectors ... motion, velocity, acceleration, ... momentum ... Thus [the elements of art] reveal not only isolated moments, but a physical law [relating] the elements of life." (Quotation from Dr. John H. Lienhard's The Engines of Our Ingenuity.)

Now returned to its original setting, Gwenfritz's black planes carve out space, time, and motion against the backdrop of the museum's façade of cool Indiana marble. Born of Mid-Century Modernism, it again speaks to the present but also to a future where art, science, technology, and American history coalesce into a single creative whole. 

Alexander Calder's "Gwenfritz" sculpture in reflecting pool, contemporary photograph, with people in foreground

Due to construction in our West Wing, the best view of Gwenfritz is from the museum's Stars and Stripes Cafe. 

Art Molella is the director of the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and curator of the exhibition Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the National Museum of American History. He has also blogged about the opening of the Museum of History and Technology, cell phone technology, and James Smithson