Alexander Calder

Black Sun


Not on display

Alexander Calder 1898–1976
Gouache on paper
Support: 737 × 1077 mm
frame: 780 × 1120 × 28 mm
Presented by Mr and Mrs Robert Lewin through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1968


Black Sun is a rectangular, horizontally oriented work on paper that is over a metre wide. It features a bold, abstract image of the sun and its emanating rays of light, all rendered in a deep black tone. A ball at the top right corner of the composition signifies the body of the sun, from which large black zig-zags extend, starting with narrow points near the sun and broadening out to thick mid-sections in the lower-middle of the paper before tailing off in faint brushstrokes in the left of the work. There is another black circle beneath the sun, positioned between two of the zig-zagged light rays, and a thick hollow triangle hovers in the white space below it.

This work was created by the American artist Alexander Calder in 1953. To make it Calder applied two to three layers of black gouache on top of one other using a brush, resulting in a slightly shiny appearance. The artist made the work in sun-drenched Aix-en-Provence in southern France, where Calder and his family spent much of the summer of 1953. It is one of a large number of gouaches that he created between June and September of that year and is among the first group of large-scale works that the artist made outdoors (see Alley 1981, p.93; and Calder Foundation, undated, accessed 26 January 2017). Aix had been the home of French post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and of Calder’s great friend, the surrealist artist André Masson. Both painted the local landscape obsessively, and although Calder did not produce landscapes, Black Sun may have been a response to the intense heat and light in the region.

Calder’s mobile sculpture Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c.1953 (Tate T00541) was made at a similar time to this work and also features solid black forms that distend in the middle and radiate from small circles – in the sculpture’s case the circles are yellow, white, blue and red. The shape of this suspended sculpture resembles an orrery – a mechanical model of the solar system – and taken together the two works suggest Calder’s interest in the heliotropic movement of the solar system.

The artist favoured astronomical motifs throughout his career and Black Sun is recalled in Calder’s paintings as well as his sculptures: for instance, in the thunderous waves emanating from a yellow and red sphere in Lightning 1955 and in the small black circle surrounded by sinuous rays in Santos 1956 (both Calder Foundation, New York). In 1962 Calder repeated the black sun motif in the tapestry Black Head (artist’s collection), made for his wife Louisa Calder.

Although Calder often worked with planes of pure black, they were commonly augmented with dashes of primary colour (see, for instance, Mobile c.1932, Tate L01686). The purely monochrome nature of Black Sun not only runs counter to this trend, but also to the common association of the sun with light and colour. This indicates that the artist may have been thinking about the effect of shadow created by the large-scale outdoor mobiles he was making in the hot, bright climate of southern France.

Further reading
‘Calder’s Work’, online catalogue raisonné, Calder Foundation, New York, undated,, accessed 26 January 2017.
Alexander Calder and Jean Davidson, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, London 1967, p.283.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.92–3, reproduced p.92.

Hana Leaper
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Alexander Calder 1898-1976

T01090 Black Sun 1953

Inscribed 'Calder 53' b.r.
Gouache on paper, 29 x 42 1/4 (74 x 108)
Presented by Mr and Mrs Robert Lewin through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1968
Prov: Mr and Mrs Robert Lewin (the Brook Street Gallery), London (purchased from the artist c.1966)

The artist confirmed in 1970 that this must have been one of the large number of gouaches which he made in 1953 at Aix-en-Provence, where he spent the summer months from June to September.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.92-3, reproduced p.92

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