Summary of Alexander Calder
American artist Alexander Calder redefined sculpture by introducing the element of movement, first through 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.
- 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.
Important Art by Alexander Calder
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)
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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
Arc of Petals
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
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
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 20th 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
Biography of Alexander Calder
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Alexander Calder
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Alexander Calder
- Alexander Calder and His Magical MobilesBy Jean Lipman
- The Essential Alexander CalderOur PickBy Howard Greenfeld
- Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933 (Whitney Museum of American Art)Our PickBy Joan Simon, Brigitte Leal
- Calder, 1898-1976 (Album Series)By Jacob Baal-Teshuva
- Calder: Gravity and GraceBy Carmen Gimenez
- The Surreal CalderBy Mark Rosenthal, Francisco Calvo Serraller
- Calder JewelryBy Alexander S.C. Rower
- Calder: Gouaches 1942-1976By PaceWildenstein