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Alexander Calder

Sculptures that captivated the world

American artist Alexander Calder is best known for his innovative method of sculpting, bending, and twisting wire and sheet metal to create three-dimensional “drawings in space.” Resonating with the Futurists and Constructivists, as well as the language of early non-objective painting, Calder’s works consist of abstract shapes made of industrial materials––often poetic and gracefully formed and at times boldly colored––that hang in an uncanny, perfect balance. These so-called ‘mobiles’ are both fascinating and emotionally engaging and have made Calder one of the most recognizable modern artists of the 20th century.

Calder, known to many as ‘Sandy’, was born in 1898 in  Pennsylvania as the second child of well-known sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder, and painter Nanette Lederer Calder. His artistic parents encouraged Calder to be creative and already from the age of 8 on he had his own little workshop. For Christmas in 1909, at 11 years old, Calder presented his parents with two of his first sculptures, a tiny dog and duck, cut from a brass sheet and bent into shape. The duck was kinetic—it would rock back and forth when tapped.

He however did not go into the arts immediately but trained as a mechanical engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Even though it is said that he only chose to study engineering because a close friend of his wanted to pursue this subject, he excelled at mathematics. A skill that would later be applied in his unique artistic approach.

After his graduation, Calder worked various jobs, including as a hydraulics and automotive engineer, timekeeper in a logging camp, and fireman in a ship's boiler room. During this last occupation, he found himself on a ship from New York bound for San Francisco. There, Calder awoke on the deck one day to see both a brilliant sunrise and a full moon; each visible on opposite horizons. This experience made such a lasting impression on him that he would refer to it throughout his life.

Calder committed to becoming an artist shortly thereafter, and in 1923 he moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League. He also took a job illustrating for the National Police Gazette, which sent him to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to sketch the troupes. This sparked a lifelong interest in the circus, and after moving to Paris in 1926, he created his Cirque Calder, a complex and unique body of art.

I love the space of the circus. I made some drawings of nothing but the tent. The whole thing of—the vast space—I’ve always loved it.

The Cirque Calder included performers, animals, and props, made from wire, leather, cloth, and other found materials. The circus was designed to be manipulated manually and every piece was small enough to be packed into a large trunk so that the artist could carry it with him and hold performances anywhere. At first, he would perform for his friends, but soon he gained an international audience, presenting the circus in both Paris and New York to much success.

Building the circus had awoken another interest in the young artist: a passion for working with wire. He began to experiment with the material, sculpting portraits of friends and public figures of the day. This resulted in his first solo gallery show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1928.

From that point on he quickly became friendly with many prominent artists and intellectuals of the early twentieth century, including Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, James Johnson Sweeney, and Marcel Duchamp. In October of 1930, Calder visited the studio of Piet Mondriaan in Paris and was deeply impressed by a wall of colored paper rectangles that Mondriaan continually repositioned to experiment with composition. He’d later describe this visit:

It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on …. I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate. And he, with a very serious countenance, said: ‘No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast.’… This one visit gave me a shock that started things.

For three weeks following the visit, he created solely abstract paintings, only to discover that he did indeed prefer sculpture to painting. So he resolved to do what Mondrian refused to; make abstract art move. In 1931 Calder created his first truly kinetic sculpture and gave form to an entirely new type of art. It was fellow artist Marcel Duchamp who first named these works ‘mobiles’, referring both to the French word for ‘motion’ and ‘motive’.

Many of these early objects still moved by the use of motors. Calder however soon abandoned this idea in favor of using air currents alone. In his mobiles, the artist often made use of striking contrasting colors. When asked about this he stated:

I want things to be differentiated [within my work]. Black and white are first—then red is next… It’s really just for differentiation, but I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish I’d been a fauve in 1905.

Calder however, did not limit himself to these moving sculptures. To differentiate his non-kinetic works from his kinetic works, Jean Arp dubbed Calder's stationary objects ‘stabiles’. The artist explained the difference: 

The ‘mobile’ has actual movement in itself, while the stabile is back at the old painting idea of implied movement. You have to walk around a stabile or through it - a mobile dances in front of you.

In 1937, Calder created his first large bolted stabile made entirely out of sheet metal, which he entitled ‘Devil Fish’. It was exhibited during a Pierre Matisse Gallery show: ‘Stabiles and Mobiles’ together with the piece ‘Big Bird’. Soon after, Calder started to receive commissions, among others for ‘Lobster Trap and Fish Tail’, a large-scale mobile that was to be installed in the main stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1937 Calder was asked to create ‘Mercury Fountain’ for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. This monumental piece was made of irregularly shaped steel plates for the liquid to run over, as well as a rod with a red disc attached on one end, and the word ALMADEN written in wire hanging from the other. As the liquid mercury moved through the fountain it would move the rod, causing the disc and wire to oscillate in the air. 

The piece was shown alongside Picasso’s Guernica and quickly became an audience favorite: onlookers would throw coins at the surface of the mercury and see them float. Today, the piece can still be seen at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, but it is now displayed behind glass due to its high toxicity.

Already in 1938, the first retrospective of Calder’s work was held at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. A second, major retrospective was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just a few years later, in 1943.

During World War II, the artist was forced out of his comfort zone: metal had become in short supply which made Calder turn to wood as a sculptural medium. These works were coined "constellations" because they seemed to suggest the cosmos with their carved wood elements held together by wire.

After the war, in 1945, Calder made a series of small-scale works often from scraps of metal that were left over from making his larger pieces. Marcel Duchamp came to visit his studio around this time and was intrigued by the smaller pieces. He figured that they could be easily dismantled and mailed to Europe. Calder ran with this idea and designed flat-pack artworks that would be sent accompanied by the detailed number and colour coded instructions so that they could be reassembled correctly on the other side.

And so, Duchamp planned a Calder show at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris. For the exhibition catalog Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his famous essay on Calder's mobiles:

The forces at work are too numerous and complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to be able to foresee all their combinations. For each of them Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it: time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance.

Calder never limited himself to his sculptures. Throughout his career, he never completely abandoned painting and also designed jewelry as well as multiple sets for plays and dance performances. In his later years, however, the artist concentrated primarily on large-scale commissioned works. Some of these monumental sculptures include: ‘.125’, a mobile for the New York Port Authority that was hung in Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) Airport (1957); ‘Spirale’, for UNESCO, in Paris (1958); ‘Teodelapio’, for the city of Spoleto, Italy (1962); ‘Trois disques’ (Man), for the Expo in Montreal (1967); ‘El Sol’ Rojo, installed outside the Aztec Stadium for the Olympic Games in Mexico City; ‘La Grande vitesse’, the first public artwork to be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan (1969); and ‘Flamingo’, a stabile for the General Services Administration in Chicago (1973).

By the 1960s Calder had achieved worldwide recognition and a retrospective of his work opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1964. In 1976, he attended the opening of yet another retrospective, ‘Calder's Universe’, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Just a few weeks later, Alexander Calder died at the age of 78, ending one of the most prolific and innovative artistic careers of the 20th century.

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