Puzzle of giant Calder sculpture is taken apart at Smithsonian for care and mind-bending reassembly


Heavy equipment surrounds Gwenfritz, a 40-foot-tall Alexander Calder sculpture, as it is disassembled. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The first two pieces of the 35-ton steel puzzle that James Sejd had to take apart were lifted free by a construction crane at noon Monday outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Fastened together, they resembled the blade of a giant utility knife, and weighed as much as a car. They were two of the roughly 75 pieces to the puzzle that the late sculptor Alexander Calder assembled with 1,270 bolts 45 years ago.

But Calder’s outdoor modernist sculpture, “Gwenfritz,” which looks like a huge steel origami, is weathered and corroded now, and metals engineer Sejd’s task is to take it apart for a facelift.

Then he gets to put it back together.

“Artists have skills and disciplines and imagination unto themselves,” said Sejd, president of ASCo., the Manassas Park firm doing the work. “I can understand what he’s doing mechanically. I never know why he’s doing it.”


(The Washington Post)

“Gwenfritz,” named for Washington philanthropist and patron Gwendolyn Cafritz, who commissioned and donated the sculpture, is a marvelous puzzle. It is one of Calder’s larger “stabiles,” a kind of fixed “mobile,” and appears to be growing, or exploding, out of the ground at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.

“It’s a neat piece when you walk around it,” said private art conservator Abigail Mack, who is overseeing the project. “It expands and contracts, based on the viewer’s position. . . . It’s like an irregular star. A very cool piece.”

It is a 40-foot-tall mass of planes, angles, points and edges that was originally bolted together on the west side of the history museum, on 14th Street, but later was moved to the property’s northwest corner.

“It’s well made,” Mack said. “That’s why it’s still here now”

After its rehabilitation, the sculpture is scheduled to go back to its original location this fall, at an estimated cost of $662,822, the museum said.

The sculpture, fabricated in a French foundry, was dedicated June 3, 1969, said Catherine C. Perge, the museum’s assistant director for exhibition and project management. It cost about $550,000 and bears Calder’s distinctive AC signature — welded onto a metal plate like a cattle brand.

Calder and Cafritz were present for the dedication, Perge said. The Pennsylvania-born Calder is perhaps best known for his hanging, kinetic mobiles, in all shapes and sizes.

He also produced a lot of outdoor sculpture.

“These things, outdoor sculptures, have been outdoors for almost 50 years,” Perge said. “And you’ve got to do something with them. It’s like a house. If you don’t paint it, it falls apart.”

Plans are to disassemble the sculpture over the next few days, and then ship the pieces aboard five trucks to Sejd’s facility, where it will be conserved and repainted.

“The coating is a partnership between the U.S. Army research laboratory and the National Gallery of Art,” said art conservator Mack. “It’s a camouflage coating that’s been adapted for Calder.”

It will be flat black in color — “stealth bomber black,” Perge said.

The sculpture was part of a movement in the 1960s to beautify Washington, Perge said. “This is one of the first sculptures that was publicly commissioned,” she said.

Cafritz “was involved because she was part of that movement,” Perge said. “So in that spirit of public sculpture, doing something on the west side that was dramatic, that’s sort of how this evolved.”

As she spoke, Sejd’s crew — manning cherry pickers and the crane — had been removing the last of the temporary bolts fixing the first two pieces to the main sculpture. The original bolts each had a letter C stamped on the square head.

Earlier, they had painstakingly removed all the old, corroded bolts and replaced them with temporary bolts to ease the disassembly. “It took four men a week” to get the old bolts out, Sejd said.

They had left sculpture sections 3D and 3C — identified in white chalk — bolted together because they wanted the 60-ton crane to hook as near as possible to a center of gravity, to prevent the segment from swinging wildly. And that seemed easier if they lifted the two pieces, instead of one.

The moment came, the last bolt was removed, and the section swung free, dangling from the crane, guided by the men in the cherry pickers. “We all had a different opinion about which way it would go,” Sejd said afterward. “And it went different than anybody said. It’s a funny piece to handle.”

The crane lowered the piece, which weighed 3,200 pounds, to a series of lumber ribs placed on the ground, where it would rest. A second piece came down later in the day.

Reassembly will be a challenge. Not only do the pieces have to fit back together, but the sculpture must be rotated so that the current north face is facing west, Sejd said.

“Once you put these (pieces) on the ground, they all look the same,” he said.

Puzzling?

“It’s a matter of organization,” he said.

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