Alexander Calder’s Bent Propeller – A Lost Work Of Art

On the Gallery of Lost Art site mentioned yesterday (which now seems to have finally disappeared!) there is an account by Jennifer Mundy about the destruction of Bent Propeller (1970) by Alexander Calder:

“The devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 killed nearly 3,000 people and dramatically affected America’s relationships with the rest of the world. The shock caused by the event was profound and in the immediate aftermath inevitably little attention focused on the art that was lost with the collapse of the buildings. But the attacks on the Twin Towers and the accompanying damage to the surrounding edifices in the World Trade Centre complex also destroyed large numbers of artworks housed in and around the skyscrapers in this vibrant business area. The exact figure of destroyed works is not known – records were lost along with the works in the corporate offices, private storage vaults and artist studios within the complex – but estimates put the combined value as high as $100 million. A spokesman for the Art Loss Registry in London described it as ‘probably the largest single art loss in history’.

“Among the many pieces destroyed, one public work in particular became symbolic of the cultural loss suffered in the attacks, and of the efforts to mitigate the damage in the weeks that followed: Alexander Calder’s Bent Propeller 1970. Commissioned for the World Trade Center Plaza while the buildings were still being constructed, the seven-metre high steel sculpture was broken and crushed under the debris. But its distinctive red colour offered hope for a period that its pieces could be identified among the building rubble.

“Calder became famous for his invention in the early 1930s of the ‘mobile’ (a coinage of fellow artist Marcel Duchamp), a suspended sculpture with parts moved by a motor or, more commonly, by currents of air…. He also made self-supporting sculptures or ‘stabiles’, which did not move but created the impression of movement through their dynamic shapes.


“In 1969 Calder was commissioned by the Port Authority of New Jersey to make a stabile for the World Trade Center, then in the course of construction… Calder quickly conceived of creating the sculpture from three sheets of metal, curved gracefully like bird wings, or, as he suggested, a bent propeller. The final work was sometimes known as the World Trade Centre Stabile but the artist himself called it Bent Propeller and this is the name by which it became known. Like many of his public sculptures it was painted in a distinctive bright red colour. In 1962 Calder said, ‘I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red.’

“The World Trade Center was not one building but a complex of seven. WTC1 and WTC2 were the giant Twin Towers, around which were grouped five smaller buildings. Calder’s sculpture was first located near the entrance to WTC1 (the North Tower), before being transferred in 1979 to the northeast corner of the World Trade Center Plaza on Vesey Street and Church Street. It was later moved to the footbridge between WTC 6 and the main entrance to WTC 7. It might have escaped the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers but WTC7 collapsed several hours after the twin towers as a result of fire damage, and the sculpture was buried under thousands of tons of debris.

“In the aftermath of the attacks some New Yorkers began to visit the site regularly to provide support for the rescue workers. One of these was Victoria Leacock, a friend of Alexander Rower, grandson of Alexander Calder and head of the Calder Foundation. Rower asked Leacock for help in attempting to recover the stabile and they made up fliers to hand out to the workers, reading – with patriotic emphasis – ‘Please Help Recover and Preserve Famous AMERICAN SCULPTURE’.

“By this point there was no hope of finding more survivors, and workers clearing the site tried to support efforts to locate parts of Calder’s sculpture in the shared hope that enough would be recovered to allow it to be restored. ‘I was there when they pulled some of the parts out of the ash’, Rower was later reported as saying. ‘This was October 11. The steel was still red hot, which was shocking to me. The heat, the intensity of that devastation was so incredible.’ But it was difficult for the workers to identify the parts. One day later Leacock visited the site and discovered a mechanical grab cutting up a damaged section of the sculpture. Most of the paint had been scorched off in the fire, and the metal had buckled under the weight of collapsing masonry, but the row of rivet holes identified the twisted metal sheet as part of Calder’s sculpture.

“The dumps used to house and sort debris were searched and, in all, about 40 per cent of the sculpture was recovered. However, this was simply not enough to restore the work, as Calder’s grandson had hoped, and the surviving pieces are now kept by the Calder Foundation in storage.

“In 2008 one fragment was included as testimony to the destruction wrought by the terrorist attack in an exhibition dedicated to 9/11 held in Caen, France. Although the sculpture cannot be repaired, its damaged parts may yet have an afterlife as a memorial, as there is a deeply felt need to preserve and value artefacts that survived, and bear witness to, the terrorist attacks.”


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I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
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5 Responses to Alexander Calder’s Bent Propeller – A Lost Work Of Art

  1. veronicacay says:

    Thanks for providing link – I had no idea of site and what a shame it is now gone. Like you I browsed through some entries but missed this one on Calder I am glad you had the presence of mind to copy. Art as testimony to living – thanks.

  2. It had never occurred to me that there would be so much art lost in the WTC, but it is obvious when you think about it. A fascinating story.

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