5 surprising facts about Alexander Calder's "Gwenfritz"

By Intern Auni Gelles

After undergoing an extensive conservation process over the last year, the museum, along with colleagues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, celebrates today the rededication of Gwenfritza 40-foot tall abstract sculpture by the esteemed American artist Alexander Calder. Intern Auni Gelles shares the behind-the-scenes scoop on the sculpture's recent restoration.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History, exterior, west side, on view with Gwenfritz in front

Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

#1. Calder had a deep relationship with the Smithsonian.
Heeding First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson's 1965 appeal for the beautification of the nation's capital, the philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz commissioned Calder to create a sculpture to be placed outside what was then known as the Museum of History and Technology (we became the National Museum of American History in 1980). Although he had criticized the Johnson administration's policies surrounding the Vietnam War, Calder accepted this commission, which would become part of the collection of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Calder valued his relationship with the Smithsonian and solidified his commitment to public art in America by creating other works for this national collection. In a 1968 letter to David Scott, then the director of the art museum, Calder mentions his progress on both Gwenfritz and another stabile, Nenuphar.

This letter from “Sandy” (Calder’s nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968.

This letter from "Sandy" (Calder's nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968. Smithsonian Institution Archives accession 96-135, boxes 1 & 2.

#2. The pool that will again surround the sculpture was an important part of Calder's vision. 
He originally envisioned high jets of water surrounding the stabile—that's the opposite of a moving sculpture, a mobile—but it was determined that the fountain would be too difficult to maintain. Water would no doubt come into contact with the metal, accelerating its deterioration. The water feature, however, remained part of Calder's idea for this site-specific work: the sculpture was designed to be surrounded by a reflecting pool.

The water feature disappeared when the sculpture was moved to a new location on Constitution Avenue in 1984, to make way for a bandstand. A major component of the stabil'’s restoration is its move back to its original location, where it will once again stand above a pool of water. Karen Lemmey, the curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said, "It's always great when you're able to honor the artist's vision.”

1971 photo of the black metal sculpture in a reflecting pool

Gwenfritz in a reflecting pool. Photo is from around 1971.

#3. Like an archaeological dig, removing layers of paint on the sculpture exposed information about the object's past. 
When Calder created this enormous structure in his studio in France, he instructed metal workers where to cut with markings on the material. Individual pieces were then assembled to form this massive abstract shape, disassembled, and shipped to the museum in crates. Once it was reassembled on the west side of the museum in 1969, Smithsonian staff covered Gwenfritz in matte black paint in accordance with Calder's suggestions—concealing the original markings. It wasn't until 2013, when conservators removed the sculpture's surface coatings, that Calder's guide marks resurfaced. They gained insights from these previously hidden marks. "It's as if we returned to Calder's hand," Lemmey said. "The piece reveal[ed] itself in the course of conservation and tells us a lot about Calder's creative process."

#4. Gwenfritz received a new coating of high-tech, military-grade paint.
The third-generation sculptor gained technical expertise as he studied mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. To achieve a rich black tone for the Gwenfritz, he shipped the metal pieces in a primer coat and advised the Smithsonian to add layer of low-gloss paint.

After careful consideration, the team chose to recover Gwenfritz in a new, military-grade paint developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the National Gallery of Art specifically for outdoor sculptures. Lemmey believes that Calder would have approved of this cutting-edge paint had it been available to him. "We would hope that the criteria that we used to guide this project would have been sympathetic to the way that Calder would have approached the problem himself," she said. In order to protect the metal for another 50+ years, the Smithsonian's preservation team will check on its condition regularly and touch up the paint as necessary.

Gwenfritz sculpture under the trees

Gwenfritz as it appeared in 2013

#5. The sculpture is held together by more than 1,200 bolts—which were all replaced. 
When the stabile was assembled in 1969, the individual pieces were connected by 1,270 bolts that came in different sizes to fit various angles. Each of the bolts faced the same way, creating a uniform aesthetic. During the 1984 move to the north side of the museum, however, this detail was lost. According to Richard Barden, the museum's preservation services manager who oversaw the recent conservation of Gwenfritz, records from both the original installation and the move 15 years later do not provide sufficient insights into how exactly the sculpture was actually set up. Before the stabile was temporarily deconstructed last fall, the staff had to better understand how exactly it was put together. Ashley Jehle, an intern in the museum's objects lab in 2010, created a detailed study of each of the 71 irregularly shaped pieces.

Using this as a guide, the conservation process could begin. The only parts of the Gwenfritz that were replaced were the bolts, many of which had corroded over the years. Thin washers were placed between the bolts and the metal planes, and special attention was paid to ensure that all of the bolts would once again be facing a single direction, a fact that Barden is particularly proud of. Barden has made an effort to maintain more detailed records so that future conservators do not face the same challenges when caring for Gwenfritz.

Bolt in bad condition from Gwenfritz sculpture sitting on a desk

Fitted with this durable new hardware and a fresh coat of black paint, the Gwenfritz is now back in its original location in a new reflecting pool on the west side of the museum. I can only imagine that Calder would be delighted to see this landmark work today, as it is more striking than ever before.

Auni Gelles interned in the New Media office over the summer. She has also blogged about Raise It Up! Anthem for America and historic preservation. For more pictures of the Gwenfritz, check out the Flickr album