Alexander Calder Life and Art Periods

"The next step in sculpture is motion."

ALEXANDER CALDER SYNOPSIS

American artist Alexander Calder redefined sculpture by introducing the element of movement, first though performances of his mechanical Calder's Circus and later with motorized works, and, finally, with hanging works called "mobiles." In addition to his abstract mobiles, Calder also created static sculptures, called "stabiles," as well as paintings, jewelry, theater sets, and costumes.

ALEXANDER CALDER KEY IDEAS

Many artists made contour line drawings on paper, but Calder was the first to use wire to create three-dimensional line "drawings" of people, animals, and objects. These "linear sculptures" introduced line into sculpture as an element unto itself.
Calder shifted from figurative linear sculptures in wire to abstract forms in motion by creating the first mobiles. Composed of pivoting lengths of wire counterbalanced with thin metal fins, the appearance of the entire piece was randomly arranged and rearranged in space by chance simply by the air moving the individual parts.
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ALEXANDER CALDER BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Alexander Calder, known as Sandy, was born into a long line of sculptors, being part of the fourth generation to take up the art form. Constructing objects from a very young age, his first known art tool was a pair of pliers. At eight, Calder was creating jewelry for his sister's dolls from beads and copper wire. Over the next few years, as his family moved to Pasadena, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco, he crafted small animal figures and game boards from scavenged wood and brass. Calder's interest initially led not to art, but to mechanical engineering and applied kinetics, which he studied at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915-1919).

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Early Training

After graduating from college, Calder tried many jobs: automotive engineer, draftsman and map-colorist, steam boat stoker, and hydraulics engineer among them. In 1922, he took evening drawing classes at the 42nd Street New York Public School. The next year he studied painting at the Arts Students League (1923-1926), with John Sloan and George Luks while working as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette. An assignment to illustrate acts at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus led to his interest in the circus.

Alexander Calder Biography

In 1926, after showing paintings at The Artists' Gallery in New York he moved to Paris. Once there, he began making the moving toys and figures that would become Calder's Circus(1926-31). He also began using wire to produce linear portraits and figurative sculptures. He became popular in the art world for his Calder's Circus performances during which he set in motion the many different characters and animals he had created. In Paris, Calder met Joan Miró, who became an important influence and close friend. In 1929, Calder began producing jewelry with the same wire he used in his sculpture. He continued jewelry work throughout his career, primarily making necklaces, rings, brooches, and bracelets for friends. Calder moved frequently from studio to studio and between New York and Paris. On one of his many transatlantic boat trips he met Louisa James, who he married in 1931.

Mature Period

In the late 1920s Calder created more figurative oil paintings, but a 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian's studio led Calder to shift from figuration to the abstraction permanently. Upon entering the studio, Calder became fixated on the colored rectangles covering one of the walls: he said he would like to make them physically move. Calder joined the influential Abstraction-Creation group and focused on finding a way to make abstract color move through space. A year later he exhibited his first abstract wire works and produced his initial, groundbreaking mechanized sculptures, pioneering kinetic art. Marcel Duchamp named these works "mobiles," a term that also encompassed the subsequent sculptures Calder created that relied on the movement of air rather than motors.

Alexander Calder Photo

During the 1930s, Calder also began making non-kinetic sculptures, which Hans Arp referred to as "stabiles." Like the mobiles, Calder's stabiles openly incorporated the components of their fabrication, such as fastening flanges and bolts, as visible elements of the designs. Calder used soaring, outstretched, arching gestures to emphasize movement and energy in both his mobiles and stabiles.

The artist moved to Connecticut in 1933, where he sought space to create ever-larger hanging works and outdoor sculptures. Concurrently, Calder began making sets and costumes for theatrical productions by dancer Martha Graham and composer Erik Satie, work that he continued throughout his career. Through the end of the 1930's he continued to stage performances of Calder's Circus. He held exhibitions and executed commissions across Europe, finally returning again 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 made many brightly colored gouache paintings. He also continued making sculpture, primarily using wood instead of metal due to supply shortages. He created Constellations, a series of airy three-dimensional stabiles of wire and carved wooden abstract shapes. In 1943, Calder was honored as the youngest artist ever to have a retrospective exhibition at the art world's most prestigious venue, New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 1946, Paris' Galerie Louis Carre organized another important exhibition of Calder's work, for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a landmark catalog essay.

Late Period

Alexander Calder Portrait

Surrounded by his family and working in a large studio he built in Roxbury, Connecticut, from 1958 to the 1970s Calder created numerous, monumental public sculptures. While these included some mobiles, his outdoor works were more often large-scale stabiles. Among his many international commissions were those for the New York Port Authority (1957), UNESCO in Paris (1958) and, in 1969, the first public artwork funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. With his family he traveled and worked during these years in France; Beirut, Lebanon; Amedabad, India; London; and New York. 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. In 1962 he built a huge studio in Sache, France, near the home of friend Jean Davidson, in which he built his largest works. In the early 1970s, he even created vibrantly colored designs to cover three Braniff jets and a BMW sports car.

ALEXANDER CALDER LEGACY

With his early Calder's Circus, Calder injected wit into serious art and introduced the concept of the artist as a performer as much as a maker of art, inspiring such artists as Claes Oldenburg and his whimsical Ray Gun Theater(1962) performances which involved artists Carolee Schneemann, Lucas Samaras, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Tom Wesselman, and Richard Artschwager; and Red Grooms' humorous performance The Burning Building(1960) and his huge mechanized Ruckus Manhattan(1975) installation sculpture.

The influence of the sweeping linear gestures in Calder's mobiles can be seen in the work of Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and the later Jackson Pollock works. The mobile introduced the elements of movement and of random chance composition into sculpture, setting the stage for experiments with the kinetic art of George Rickey and music and dance composed by chance operations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

Original content written by Rachel Gershman
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ALEXANDER CALDER QUOTES

"People think monuments should come out of the ground, never out of the ceiling, but mobiles too can be monumental."

"Why must art be static?"

"Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions."

"My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement."

"The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof...What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form."

Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder Influences

Interactive chart with Alexander Calder's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.

Modern Art Information Hans Arp
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
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Fernard Léger
Fernard Léger
Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a unique style of Cubism using cylindrical and other geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to abstract compositions.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fernard Léger
Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Man Ray
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American modern artist. best known for his organic, biomorphic sculpture works, Noguchi was also a furniture designer and landscape artist.
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James Johnson Sweeney
James Johnson Sweeney
James Johnson Sweeney was an American curator, art collector, critic, and the second director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, from 1952 to 1960.

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Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
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Futurism
Futurism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Futurism
Neo-Plasticism
Neo-Plasticism
Neo-Plasticism was the guiding philosophy behind the art of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and many of his peers in the De Stijl circle. Articulated by Mondrian in 1917-18, the approach stipulates the strict use of only horizontal and vertical lines; the primary colors red, yellow, and blue; and white, gray, and black.

Modern Art Information Neo-Plasticism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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George Rickey
George Rickey
George Rickey was an American kinetic sculptor. He designed sculptures whose metal parts moved in response to the slightest air currents. These parts were often very large, sometimes weighing tons. His work combines his love of engineering and mechanics, David Smith's graceful, yet solid, cubic forms, and the mobiles of Alexander Calder.

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John Cage
John Cage
John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Cage
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero is an American sculptor, best known for his large-scale non-objective works that have been tied to Constructivism, Conceptualism and Abstract Expressionism. Using materials such as railroad ties, steel and scrap metal, many of di Suvero's works contain moving parts, rendering them kinetic and thus altering one's experience of the work whilst viewing it.

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Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly is an American color-field and Hard edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late 1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
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Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
The Swedish-American artist and architect Claes Oldenburg, an early figure in New York happenings and Pop art, is best known for his floppy sculptures and larger-than-life public works of consumer goods, musical instruments, and everyday objects.

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Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe was an American painter best known for her depictions of flowers, animal skulls, landscapes, and still lifes. Married to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she was an important member of the "Stieglitz circle" and early American modernism.
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Jules Pascin
Jules Pascin
Jules Mordecai Pincas (aka Pascin, aka "Prince of Montparnasse") was a Bulgarian-born artist. Not associated with any particular twentieth-century movement, Pascin instead spent his life traveling throughout Europe and the U.S., experimenting with watercolor, drawing, and painting, typically using friends and family members as his subjects. Plagued with depression and alcoholism most of his life, Pascin committed suicide at age 45.

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Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was a twentieth-century French philosopher, public intellectual, playwright, activist, literary critic and novelist. His name has become synonymous with Existentialism, the modern philosophy he popularized throughout his career. Sartre's writings, while vast, are characterized by his intense focus on matters dealing with human behavior, the Ego and "the Other." In one of his most celebrated works, the play No Exit, one of Sartre's characters boasts the famous line, "Hell is other people."

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Kinetic Art
Kinetic Art
Kinetic art - art which depends on movement for its effects - has its origins in the Dada and Constructivist movements that emerged in the 1910s, but it flourished into a lively international avant-garde in the mid-1950s. Its adherents attempted to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer, and new visual experiences, and its products often rejected the traditional, hand-crafted, static art object.
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Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
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Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
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Carolee Schneemann
Carolee Schneemann
Carolee Schneemann is an American visual artist, known for her discourses on the body, sexuality and gender. Her work is primarily characterized by research into visual traditions, taboos, and the body of the individual in relationship to social bodies. Schneemann's works have been associated with a variety of art classifications including Fluxus, Neo-Dada, the Beat Generation, and happenings.
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Lucas Samaras
Lucas Samaras
Greece born artist Lucas Samaras creates photography-based work most frequently involving his own self-portrait, often distorted or using multiple media. Samaras, who was part of the group of artists involved in "happenings" in the 1950s and 60s, has worked in painting, sculpture, performance art and photography.

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Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
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Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
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Calder's Circus
Calder's Circus

Title: Calder's Circus (1926-1931)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In this work Calder experimented with setting a large collection of miniature acrobats, animals, and other figures in motion using springs and pulleys. Calder's Circus exemplified the playful wit that infused much of Calder's subsequent work. Three films were made of Calder's Circus performances, but the work's significance is that it is one of the earliest modern works in which the artist is equally involved as both a "maker" and a performer.


Mixed media: wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, bottle caps - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York

Josephine Baker (III)
Josephine Baker (III)

Title: Josephine Baker (III) (c. 1927)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Calder's illustrations for the National Police Gazette were often made of single, continuous lines. He learned this technique in mechanical drawing classes at the Art Students League. In 1925, Calder was the first to extend this line drawing approach into three dimensions. He soon began creating figurative and portrait sculptures using only wire to "draw in space." His several sculptures of dancer Josephine Baker were his earliest works in this direction. These artworks were important in furthering both his career-long use of wire and his interest in open-space sculpture.


Steel wire - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

A Universe
A Universe

Title: A Universe (1934)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the early 1930s Calder's desire to create abstract paintings that moved through space led to motorized works such as A Universe, in which the two spherical shapes traveled at different rates during a 40-minute cycle. Interested in astronomy, he compared his works' discrete moving parts to the solar system. These works were an important step towards his non-motorized mobiles, as well as forerunners to his Constellation series of the 1940s.


Painted iron pipe, steel wire, motor, and wood with string - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

Arc of Petals
Arc of Petals

Title: Arc of Petals (1941)

Artwork Description & Analysis: From the 1930s on, Calder created non-mechanized hanging, standing, and wall-mounted mobiles, whose movement was driven by random air currents. Early versions often used scavenged bits of glass or pottery, while later ones were generally comprised entirely of flat metal shapes painted solid red, yellow, blue, black, or white, such as this work. Calder succeeded in integrating natural movement into sculpture by assembling elements that balance themselves naturally by weight, surface area, and length of wire "arm." The basic equilibrium he struck guarantees compositional harmony among the parts, no matter their relative positions at any given moment. Though many other artists have since created works based on his principles, even now, decades later, Calder is still the undisputed master of this form of sculpture.


Painted and unpainted sheet aluminum, iron wire, and copper rivets - Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy

Devil Fish
Devil Fish

Title: Devil Fish (1937)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Counterpoint to his mobiles, Calder created many stabiles, composed of intersecting shaped planes of bolted sheet metal, often painted a single color. Devil Fish was the first larger-scale stabile Calder made. By forming combinations of curved biomorphic shapes, Calder creates a swirling sense of motion, even in a static sculpture such as this. Later stabiles combined both organic and geometric forms.


Sheet metal, bolts and paint - Calder Foundation, New York, New York

Man
Man

Title: Man (1967)

Artwork Description & Analysis: During his later years Calder produced many monumental stabiles and mobiles as public works for sites worldwide. Man was commissioned for Montreal's Expo '67. At 65 feet tall, its one of Calder's largest sculptures. Works such as Man contributed to the proliferation of public art during the second half of the twentieth century. Such grand stabiles are dynamic works, with their arches, points, and flowing forms reaching out in multiple directions.


Stainless steel plate and bolts - City of Montreal, Canada

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.