Alexander Calder


Alexander Calder (1898-1976), known as Sandy, began constructing objects from a very young age. His parents, both artists, encouraged his talent. They provided him with tools and working spaces while the family moved to Pasadena, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. At eight, Calder was creating jewelry for his sister's dolls from beads and copper wire. Over the next few years, he crafted small animal figures and game boards from wood and brass. This interest initially led not to art, but to mechanical engineering, which Calder studied at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915-1919).

After graduating, Calder worked as an automotive engineer, draftsman and map- colorist for a hydraulics engineer. In 1922, he took evening drawing classes at the 42nd Street New York Public School. The following year he began studying at the Arts Students League (1923-1926), focusing on painting, studying with artists such as John Sloan and George Luks. During this time, Calder worked as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette. One of his jobs for the publication was to draw images of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which gave him an artistic interest in the circus.

In 1926, he moved to Paris, where he started creating the moving toys and figures that would become his famous Cirque Calder. He also began producing portrait and figurative sculptures composed entirely of wire. For the next few years, Calder spent time both in New York and Paris. He was gaining acclaim in the art world for his performances of Cirque Calder, during which he manipulated the many different characters and animals he had created. He had his first solo exhibition in 1928 at Weyhe Gallery in New York. That year, Calder also met Joan Miró, who became an important influence and close friend. In 1929, Calder started producing jewelry, using the same wire his used in his sculptures. He continued his jewelry work throughout his career, primarily making the necklaces, rings, brooches and bracelets for friends. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Calder made many trips across the Atlantic by boat as he traveled between New York and Paris. On one of these, he met Louisa James, whom he married in 1931.

Calder's 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian's studio led to an important shift in his artistic direction, from figuration to the abstraction, which dominated the rest of his career. Upon entering the studio, Calder became fascinated by the colored rectangles covering one of the walls, and suggested the shapes should be made to physically move. He has said this experience "shocked" him towards abstraction. Calder soon joined the influential artist group Abstraction-Creation. The following year, he exhibited his first abstract wire works and produced his initial, groundbreaking mechanized sculptures, pioneering kinetic art. Duchamp named these works "mobiles," a term that also encompassed the sculptures Calder created that relied on air movement rather than motors.

During the 1930s, Calder also began making non-kinetic sculptures, which Hans Arp referred to as "stabiles" in contrast to "mobiles." Like the mobiles, Calder's stabiles reflect a persistent interest in engineering; on many stabiles the structural elements, such as bolts, are visible to the viewer. Stabiles' outstretched sections and rolling arches allowed Calder to suggest his fundamental emphasis on movement and energy, even in stationary structures. Calder moved to Connecticut in 1933, where he had space to create ever-larger works and experiment with outdoor sculptures. While expanding both his mobiles and stabiles, Calder constructed sets and costumes for theatrical productions by artists such as Martha Graham and Erik Satie, work that he continued throughout his career. Towards the end of the decade, he continued to stage performances of Cirque Calder. He was living in both France and England, finally returning to the U.S. in 1938. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Calder to create the large mobile Lobster Trap and Fish Tail.

During World War II, Calder progressed with his sculptural work, but used primarily wood rather than metal, due to supply shortages. For his series of stabile works that became known as Constellations, he linked carved wooden abstract shapes with wire into three-dimensional compositions that were stationary, but full of empty space. When MoMA held a retrospective of Calder's work in 1943, Calder was the youngest artist to become the subject of such an exhibit at the museum. Calder had created some oil paintings in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the 1940s, he made many brightly colored paintings using gouache. In 1946, Paris' Galerie Louis Carre organized an important exhibition of Calder's work, for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a landmark catalogue essay.

Much of Calder's work from the late 1950s to the 1970s centered on monumental public sculptures designed for the outdoors. While these included some mobiles, his outdoor work primarily took the form of large-scale stabiles. He received many international commissions, such as those from New York Port Authority (1957), UNESCO in Paris (1958) and Grand Rapids, Michigan, as the first public artwork funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (1969). He also continued creating smaller sculptures, jewelry and set designs. In 1960, Calder began designing tapestries to be crafted by weavers in the French villages of Aubusson and Felletin, the largest of which was commissioned by IBM in 1973. In the early 1970s, he created vibrantly colored designs to cover three Braniff airplanes.

Calder's ground-breaking inventions of the mobile and stabile inspired many artists, both during his prolific career and after his 1976 death. Abstract Expressionist sculptors were particularly influenced by his transformation of the idea of sculpture: a moving structure full of empty space and flexible joints, rather than a solid, static object. Through his sense of wit, innovative constructions and merging of geometric and organic forms, Calder set the stage for diverse experiments with kinetic art, performance art and abstract sculpture over the next decades. His work can currently be found in numerous major collections and public spaces worldwide.