Alexander Calder is one of America’s best loved Modernist sculptors, innovating suspended “mobiles” and monumental “stabiles” from sheet metal that use balance and movement to evoke the elegant dynamics of the universe.
Known as Sandy to his family, Calder was born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, and father, Alexander Stirling Calder, were both successful sculptors of monumental stone works; his mother Nanette Calder (née Lederer) was a professional portrait artist. During his childhood, the family moved around the country frequently – from Pennsylvania to Arizona, and then splitting time between New York City and San Francisco for many years – due to his father’s struggle with tuberculosis and later for his teaching positions and commissions. As a boy, Calder showed extraordinary dexterity and a mind for engineering, fashioning toys and whimsical wire sculptures with small hand tools. Regardless of where they lived, his parents ensured a studio space dedicated to his tinkering and projects. Uninterested in an artistic career, however, he entered the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey at 17, where he excelled at math and earned his mechanical engineering degree in 1919.
A few years after graduating, Calder had what he would later recognize as a transforming experience while working as a mechanic on a passenger ship. Sailing off the coast of Guatamala, he awoke on the deck early one morning to observe the sun rising and the full moon setting simultaneously on opposite horizons. The moment opened him to the ideas about the massive yet precise dynamics of the cosmos that would become central to his work. He soon after traveled to Washington state to take a job as a timekeeper at a logging camp near his sister and brother-in-law. It was there that he first wrote home asking for paints and brushes. Within a number of months, he decided to return to New York City to become an artist. By 1923, he was studying at the Art Students League under painters Thomas Hart Benton, George Luks, and John Sloan.
A natural draftsman, Calder’s work on assignments at a zoo and circus led him to discover his passion for drawing animals. The circus would become another important theme in his art, and in 1926, he published a book of animal sketching that remains in print today.
After completing his studies in New York, Calder moved to Paris to attend the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and rent a studio in Montparnasse. He lived there for the next seven years, one of only a handful of Americans to establish himself among that now legendary group of avant-garde writers and artists in 1920s Paris. Blessed with a notoriously playful charm, his close friends included Fernand Leger, Joan Miro, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp, their circle nicknaming him the “king of wire” for his expressive sculptures of animals, circus themes, and portraits. Claiming to think best in the material, he often carried a roll of wire over his shoulder and pliers in his pocket. His first master work, Cirque Calder, was an elaborate miniature circus that he installed for years on the floor of friends’ apartments during parties. Incorporating cloth, yarn, and cork, the constructions filled five suitcases and included spring-action performers and pull toy animals that allowed him to experiment with the intricate physics of each act as he executed them for friends under his big top.
Also remarkable during the Paris years were his wire portraits. Josephine Baker (III) of 1927, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is a full-body likeness of the jazz-age dancer, as expressive and exuberant as a line drawing on paper. Calder indeed thought of his constructions as “drawings in space,” enjoying the fact that the medium had a mind of its own and necessitated abstraction.
In 1930, Calder visited the studio of the reclusive Piet Mondrian. It was another pivotal moment, which he claimed “shocked” him into focusing exclusively on abstract subjects. Fascinated, he suggested to the Dutch artist that it would be fun to free an array of colored rectangles – to make them dance. It was after this point that he began to experiment with simple kinetic sculptures animated by touch, cranks, and motors – dubbed by Duchamp as “mobiles.” His Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1933) invites audiences to set a small, suspended ball in motion to swing randomly among a group of objects on the floor – a box, bottle, and gong. Delighted by adding motion, Calder eventually began to rely on the physics of balance and air currents to move his constructions, as we see in the Calder Foundation’s Vertical Foliage (1941). Suspended from above, the mobile is an exquisite series of four carefully balanced black fronds, stirred by the slightest air current.
Calder married Louisa James in Paris, grandniece of author Henry James, and they moved to a farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1933. They raised two daughters there and Calder continued his experimentations in a converted icehouse, using carved wood for a time due to the scarcity of aluminum during World War II. By 1945, he was again filling his studio with kinetic metal constructions, painting the sheets in black, red, blue, and white, and fashioning the shapes into huge constellations and other compositions. While he would create endless variations in this method for the next 30 years, he also developed a practice of creating static sculptures nicknamed “stabiles.” These monumental pieces include bolted steel works like the 53-foot red Flamingo (1972), installed in Chicago’s Federal Plaza in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building designed by Mies van der Rohe. The curved, vibrant sculpture is an ideal counterpoint to the dark, orderly lines of the surrounding architecture.
In the 1960s, Calder established a new studio in the rural town of Sache, France, which remains an atelier for artists in residence. He published his book Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures in 1966.
He died unexpectedly on November of 1976, shortly after the opening of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York.
The Whitney Museum holds the largest public collection of works by Calder. Other important collections include the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, which has a room dedicated to him. The Calder family created the Calder Foundation in 1987. They have large holdings of his work, including more than 600 sculptures, and are dedicated to exhibitions of his art.
More information on Alexander Calder can be found in the National Gallery of Art
The Long Brass Tail on Black and Red, 1956
Sheet metal, brass, wire and paint
26 3/4 x 32 x 11 1/2 inches
Two Horizontals and Nine Verticals, 1956
Sheet metal, wire and paint
19 x 60 x 15 1/4 inches
Three yellow, two blue polygons and brass on red, 1958
Brass, painted metal and wire
12 x 22 x 13 inches