The red of some Alexander Calder outdoor painted sculptures have, unfortunately, been repainted with some fanciful variations of red. When the original red color can not be known for certain from archival information, paint cross sections, or other forms of documentation, there is a fairly well documented history and preserved samples of the “Calder Red” color seen and accepted by the artist, specified by the Alexander Calder Foundation for decades, and used for Stabiles in the U.S. since at least 1968 to use as a reference.
With a “new” and quite different Calder Red color being specified and used for repainting sculptures by Alexander Calder, it may be valuable to explore some of the history of the color used on Calder Stabiles in the United States since at least 1968. The color has had decades of fairly well documented and consistent use.
In cases where the original “red” can not be documented for matching in any repainting, using a “Calder Red” that differs from the pervasive and long recommended color should come with a hefty amount of argument in its favor.
We recently ordered some of the “new” Calder red specified by the Alexander Calder Foundation and it is quite different from the well documented legacy color used for decades. It is not the characteristic vermilion or “Chinese red” but is darker and closer to Ronan’s Signcraft Red. We have no information on the reason for this change in the color and wonder how many of Calder’s Stabiles may have been altered by it.
We present here, in a PDF document, some “Notes” on that history, made up of research, observations and some oral history from numerous interviews with people associated with the color.
This document was last updated in 2012 and so some products information may be currently out-of-date.
Click the image below to read the document (some products information may now be out-of-date).
SELECTED EXCERPTS FROM THE REPORT
A HISTORY OF “CALDER RED” COLOR AND ITS PAINTS IN THE UNITED STATES IN RELATION TO THE RECOATINGS OF ALEXANDER CALDER’S FLAMINGO (1973) AND LA GRANDE VITESSE (1969) AND OTHER CALDER STABILES
Robert G. Lodge
Associate, the American Institute of Architects (AIA)
Professional Associate, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC
Emmett W. Lodge
NACE Certified Industrial Coatings Inspector National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE)
This document is incomplete and is not intended to offer a comprehensively researched study of the orange-red color and its paints either specified, intended by, or applied by Alexander Calder on his various stabiles (the mobiles are excluded entirely). As the document contains some unsubstantiated information based on recollection (oral history), opinions, and some conjectures, it is not suitable in its present form for publication.
As would be expected to be well known by the readers, the color widely known as “Calder Red” is the characteristic matte orange red color (somewhat similar to vermilion or “Chinese Red”) used and specified by the artist for parts or the whole of his stabiles, many of which are monumental and outdoors, of the period 1963 to 1976. Earlier use of this color, or variants the artist may have used, was not researched by the authors. The artist also used the darker, standard red color “Signcraft Red” (and other colors) produced by the Ronan paint company located in the Bronx, New York, for components of his mobiles. The Ronan paints are flat, quick drying decorative paints known as “Japan Colors” not suitable for enduring outdoor exposure. Please recognize that the information in this document does not imply that there were not variants in the red color of paints used and/or approved by the artist for the stabiles. (Note 3)
(3) A copy of a letter once in the possession of Robert Lodge (misplaced or lost) from Klaus Perls (Perls Gallery, NY) has Mr. Perls stating exactly or in effect in regard to Calder Red: “he was not too particular about an exact color.”
The Color of FLAMINGO and LA GRANDE VITESSE
The two long-term paint sources for the artist’s signature orange-red color known as “Calder Red” used on his stabiles in the United States as well as shipped to Europe for use on stabiles there were (1) the Keeler & Long Company, who the artist’s red color in a matte, long-oil alkyd paint for the 1973 (Note 4) FLAMINGO in Chicago, and (2) Guardsman Chemical Company, who matched Calder’s same preferred red color, also in a matte alkyd, for the earlier commissioned 1969 LA GRANDE VITESSE in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Note 5)
(4) Dedicated October 25, 1974.
(5) Subject to historical complications described later.
When Guardsman Chemical Company closed its business, the established Calder Red color formula was preserved and alkyd Calder Red paints were thereafter provided by Pro Coating Inc. of Sparta, Michigan from the Guardsman color formula. (Note 6)
(6) Told to Robert Lodge long ago by a former executive of Guardsman Chemical Company whose name has been forgotten.
To be fully accurate, the first coating of Calder Red for LA GRANDE VITESSE was paint that shipped with the sculpture from France and was applied to the shop-primed steel after its erection by brushing. The paint was referred to as “the definitive color” in an English translation provided with the French original letter. (Note 7)
(7) Letter from the Biemont, Tours fabricator dated March 5, 1969 preserved in the Nancy Mulnix Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library.
“We have noted your agreement with regard to the colour of the ground and the definitive colour which you will apply on the premises.”
“To that purpose we are informing you that you will find in the cases not only the quantity of paint necessary for the definite (red) but also a certain number of jugs containing the ground paint permitting you to make some retouches which you believe to be necessary on the primary coats.”
The first paint for overpainting the sculpture matching this color was provided by Ford Paint and Varnish Company, founded by former U.S. President Gerald Ford’s stepfather in 1929. (Note 8)
(8) Told to Robert Lodge long ago by a former executive of Guardsman Chemical Company whose name has been forgotten.
Presumably, having no evidence, the Ford Paint and Varnish Company matched the color of the paint shipped with the sculpture and may even have had the shipped supply of dry pigments. This color formula was passed to Guardsman Chemical Company and accurately so, according to a Guardsman company spokesperson interviewed by Robert Lodge. (Note 9)
(9) Told to Robert Lodge long ago by a former executive of Guardsman Chemical Company whose name has been forgotten.
The Calder Red colors provided by these early sources (Ford/Guardsman/Pro Coatings and Keeler & Long’s color matched one another from the earliest or first layers through repeated overcoatings of both sculptures, based on visual and cross-sectional microscopic examinations (by Robert Lodge) of lowest observable (and presumably original) layers on the two sculptures and by a comparison/tracking of the later companys’ products over the years.
Over the years, these two monumental and historically significant Calder sculptures, FLAMINGO and LA GRANDE VITESSE, have been overpainted (Note 11) many times. LA GRANDE VITESSE has been overpainted every year until fairly recently. It was last overpainted in the Spring of 2012 [Edited: it was just repainted in 2017] with matte alkyd paint produced by Pro Coatings of Sparta, Michigan and the accumulations are afterwards exceeding a phenomenal 70 mil (Note 12) in many places (Note 13) (approximately 30 mil is generally considered the maximum accumulated thickness of coatings before failure of the accumulations from stress and strain) (Note 14). And over the years, right up to the present, both sculptures have maintained the same standard in Calder Red color and in a matte finish as they were originally painted. And over the years, right up to the present, the color of each sculpture has matched the other. The artist saw and approved the first color of each (note 15) and the Alexander Calder Foundation specified this same color for necessary repaintings of Calder sculptures, referencing the Keeler & Long product (Note 16), until just a few years ago when the Keeler & Long Company product was discontinued. Thus, the color of LA GRANDE VITESSE and of FLAMINGO should be considered historical, well documented reference standards for “Calder Red” and it is important that both today, even after new coatings in 2012, show no deviation from the first, artist-approved colors, nor from each other.
(11) FLAMINGO had been both “overpainted” at times and also “repainted”- meaning a stripping away of existing coatings for a new coating system.
(12) One mil = 1 1/1000 inch. The unit of measure is nowadays mostly confined to the coatings industry and film manufacturing. For aid in envisioning, a common “strong” plastic trash bag has a thickness of 3-4 mil.
(13) Due to the heavy accumulations, the surface of the LA GRANDE VITESSE is quite rough, resembling an old iron bridge after many over-coatings. It is the personal opinion of Robert Lodge that this is not visually undesirable as it lends to the sculpture the “industrial character” of the artist’s long-used materials. However, even today, with heavily caked paint, its appearance is bold and uniform at a normal viewing distance. The sculpture is remarkable for having maintained its original paint and color throughout 44 years of exterior exposure.
(14) Robert Lodge has inspected the sculpture from the point where accumulations had reached approximately 30 mil. At 40 mil the accumulations were breaking away in varying groups of layers. In 2011, near 70 mil, the thick accumulations were breaking away, with all their layers intact, from the steel.
(15) Subject to qualification statements elsewhere in this document for FLAMINGO. Since the first paint or a sample to be matched for LA GRANDE VITESSE was shipped with the sculpture, since the artist saw the painted sculpture at its dedication and left no recorded objection, and since it has been partially observed and stated by informed individuals that the color formula never changed, the color of LA GRANDE VITESSE may rightfully be held to be a well documented standard for Calder Red.
(16) Other coatings products were also specified, such as “Tnemec Endura-Shield Series 175” (with a matte clear coat) and “Rust-Oleum Industrial Enamel High-Performance Acrylic no. 5269 (red)”. Earlier (noted in 1997), inquirers were directed to obtain “authorized” paints from the fulfillment center Nucifera in New York.
Keeler & Long’s Calder Red became a standard for the Calder Red color and flat alkyd paint in the U.S. because it was long specified by the Calder Foundation, and was even shipped to Europe for restorations there (e.g. Calder’s CARMEN, restored at the Museum Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) and likely for the 2008 repainting of HOMAGE TO JERUSALEM in Israel just before the K&L product was discontinued.
However, were there variants of the “red” Alexander Calder would have specified or desired for certain other stabiles?
There was the one exception of a darker red-orange color produced around 2002 as “Calder Red” (but with its own color reference number: EA23 (Note 17) by the Keeler & Long Company, perhaps produced for a specific Calder sculpture at someone’s request. The existence of this other Keeler & Long Calder Red became known to Robert Lodge after a purchaser in Portugal received this color in paint ordered from Keeler & Long and complained (note 18) it was “the wrong color.”
(17) The color number for this color was obtained by Robert Lodge after an inquiry around 2002 to Keeler & Long if there were more than one “Calder Red” color available from the company.
(18) In a communication to Robert Lodge.
When fabrication for FLAMINGO took place at Stephen Segree’s shop, Segree Iron Works, in Waterbury, Connecticut, Segree (Stephen Segretario) received the artist’s specification of a matte and red color that Keeler & Long then produced to match this artist’s requested color. Note 19)
(19) According to a telephone communication between Robert Lodge and Stephen “Segree” around 1997. In that conversation, Segree offered to provide Lodge with left-over cans of the original batch of Keeler & Long paint he had made for FLAMINGO. The delivery never happened. The old paint was probably solidified by then.
The choice of Keeler & Long was obviously due to its plant’s location in Watertown – a 10 minute drive from Segree’s iron workshop in Waterbury. Later, Keeler & Long continued to produce the same Calder Red color but in its silicone modified alkyd which had greater weathering resistance (product KLP39877, KL=Keeler & Long, P=PolySilicone Alkyd, 3=flat, 9877=the color). (Note 20)
(20) Shortly before Keeler and Long discontinued production of their Polysilicone Alkyd and any Calder Red, their product code for Calder Red changed to KLV39877 with the “V” indicating a subxtitution with VOC compliant solvents.
Robert Lodge interviewed Stephen Segree about the Calder Red paint around 1997, and also around that time he interviewed Mr. Long of Keeler & Long Company at an SSPC (Society for Protective Coatings, formerly the Steel Structures Painting Council) meeting in San Diego. (Note 21)
21 Mr. Long sold his company to PPG shortly after that time.
Long said that he was aware that his company had been a long-time provider of Calder paints and was proud of that, and he offered to be personally involved in any matters of quality. Segree said he personally favored and argued for a glossier paint than what the artist always requested because he knew it would endure longer but accepted the artist’s request for a matte red “like was used on the Grand Rapids sculpture.”(Note 22)
(22) According to a telephone communication between Robert Lodge and Stephen Segree around 1997.
John Debara , an employee of the Keeler & Long company since, 1973, and one who took paint orders from Mr. Segree, recalled how insistent Segree was on obtaining the maximum flatness (matte) for the paints he was using in producing Calder’s sculptures, the red, an off-white, and black paints. (Note 23)
(23) From a telephone conservation between John Debara and Robert Lodge in 2013.
According to Mr. Debara, Segree was seeking matte of between 1-3 gloss units (as measured at 60 deg.) (Note 24)
(24) Simply put, the gloss unit is a measurement of the amount of diffused light reflecting from a surface illuminated by light incident on the surface at a certain angle, here 60 degrees incident (measurements are taken at 20, 60 and 85 degrees). While matte surfaces are much more accurately measured with light incident at 85 degrees, it is fairly common to provide gloss unit readings of all surfaces, matte to gloss, using 60 degrees incidence so that the readings are more easily comparable across the full range of surfaces.
Presumably, Segree’s insistence on extremely matte paint was a reflection of Alexander Calder’s wishes.
When FLAMINGO arrived in red lead primer and was erected and painted, Alexander Calder (who was present for its dedication on October 25, 1974) remarked that the paint was “too glossy.” This was a comment by the artist overheard and reported in a newspaper article on the dedication of the sculpture and its associated celebration. (Note 25)
(25) A photocopy of the newspaper article from GSA records lacks a banner (presumably that of the Chicago Tribune), and lacks a date. The reporter was Carol Oppenheim.
Then, Mrs. Nancy Mulnix, the head of the committee that commissioned Calder’s LA GRANDE VITESSE for Grand Rapids, brought to the attention of GSA’s project architect that FLAMINGO’s paint was the wrong color (a little too dark). (Note 27)
(27) It may be fruitful to examine the archives of Nancy Mulnix contained in 4 cubic feet (OCLC No. 17599176) at the Grand Rapids Public Library for any other related information. From the GSA database record for FLAMINGO: “Nancy Mulnix of the Vandenberg Center in Grand Rapids contacted an architect who contacted Chicago’s branch of the GSA on November 6, 1974, to say that the color of ‘Flamingo’ was slightly off, and not the exact shade of Calder Red which the artist has been known to use for his other pieces. Mulnix provided a contact at the Guardsman Chemical Coatings, Inc., Mr. Neil Weemhof … who would be able to mix the proper color for ‘Flamingo.” The architect agreed with Mulnix, and suggested to the GSA that when the time for repainting does arrive, one might consider layering the graffiti-proof Calder Red over the other standard coats of orange.”
How this color error happened is not clear. But the sculpture was erected in primer and was painted on-site by a painting contractor perhaps without Stephen Segree’s involvement. The government’s record (a letter by Karol Yasko, then GSA Commissioner for Fine Arts) indicates that the artist’s and GSA’s approval of the fabrication was made at Segree’s shop before the final paint coating was applied, when the steel was only primed with a lead red primer. There seems to be no document that GSA had approved that first coating applied to the sculpture after its erection.
Whatever the cause of the mishap, GSA had FLAMINGO repainted to match LA GRANDE VITESSE in color and matte surface character, though the date for this has not been found, setting the color standard for both sculptures and for repaintings of these and other Calder sculptures over decades and worldwide.
As far as Robert Lodge knows, there is no document evidencing that Alexander Calder actually did select the very same color for FLAMINGO that he approved earlier for the nearby LA GRANDE VITESSE, only a verbal remark by the fabricator Stephen Segree that this was so. (Note 28)
(28) See note 20: telephone conversation between Robert Lodge and fabricator Steven Segree.
The eventually permanent color for FLAMINGO appears to have been caused by the remark made by Nancy Mulnix that FLAMINGO was the wrong color (based entirely, it seems, on her knowledge of the color of the relatively recent LA GRANDE VITESSE). Alexander Calder, it seems, saw at the dedication the coating that was applied to FLAMINGO but the only recorded remark of his, which a reporter overheard and was printed in a newspaper, was his observation that it was “too glossy.”
The absence of a recorded remark by the artist on the color is not necessarily an acceptance of the color. In the absence of a recorded specific remark by the artist, and in the absence of a color sample submitted by the artist or by Stephen Segree for FLAMINGO (which does not survive apparently), it seems reasonable to rely on (1) the use of the better documented color choice for the somewhat earlier and nearby LA GRANDE VITESSE and (2) the unwavering persistence and acceptance of the color of FLAMINGO from the time when it was repainted after he saw it at the dedication.
When Keeler & Long completely discontinued production of their silicone alkyd, and thus their 35 year production of the authorized Calder Red, as all large manufacturers have discontinued large production alkyd coatings, Keeler & Long gave Robert Lodge their reference color swatch for safe-keeping – the only reference the Watertown, Connecticut plant used to confirm batch consistency among its orders for its Calder Red. According to Keeler & Long told to Robert Lodge by the color lab, the plant kept two such cards coated with the red color and batch colors were mixed manually until the color was made to match these two physical standards. At one point in time, one of the two cards was lost at the plant. Keeler & Long gave Robert Lodge the only remaining reference standard card as they felt they would have no further use for it and Lodge expressed interest that it be preserved.
An examination of the plastic coated paperboard card shows that its color may have darkened slightly over time. There is certainly an unevenness, with the perimeter being lighter in color and still matching the color of past paints ordered for this color. Nevertheless, the aged color is generally a good match to what has always been on LA GRANDE VITESSE and on FLAMINGO.
In addition, for whatever purposes it may serve in the future, the pigments have been filtered from a 1989 quart of Keeler & Long Calder Red KLP39877 by Robert Lodge and kept by him. This color formulation contains chromium pigments which have been replaced by compliant substitutes in current formulations of Calder Red.
FLAMINGO was painted again in 2012. The color standard for the 2012 repainting of FLAMINGO is based on the seemingly unwavering color history of LA GRANDE VITESSE using as a color reference a gallon of Pro Coating’s new acrylic Calder Red instead of the aged Keeler & Long color reference card. Pro Coating’s acrylic remains a faithful match to heritage colors of LA GRANDE VITESSE and of FLAMINGO. The Pro Coating’s Calder Red was matched exactly for the 2012 repainting of FLAMINGO in a custom matte 2 part acrylic aliphatic urethane by Precision Coatings of Springfield, Missouri. Precision Coatings company now maintains that historic Calder red color in non-chromate substitute automotive grade pigments for other’s use in repainting Alexander Calder sculptures.