Alexander Calder
Biography of American Kinetic Artist, Sculptor & Painter.

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.125 (1957, JFK Airport)

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development of the plastic arts
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Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

One of the most famous abstract sculptors from America, Alexander Calder, is best known for his kinetic art - for making sculptures move. Trained as an engineer, then as an artist, Calder spent time in Paris where he was influenced by Mondrian and Joan Miro. His main contribution to the art of sculpture was his invention (c.1931-2) of the Stabile - so-named by Jean Arp - a static wire figure sculpture, and the Mobile - so-named by Marcel Duchamp - a kinetic abstract sculpture consisting of a carefully balanced design of metal plates, rods and wires, which moved with air currents or the push of a hand. He also created paintings, jewellery, set designs and illustrated books. His best known works include Mobile Untitled (1976, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) and La Grande Vitesse (1969, The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan).

For a list of sculptors like
Alexander Calder, see:
Modern Artists.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967)
Naum Gabo (1890-1977)
Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973)
Henry Moore (1898-1986)
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-66)
Jean Dubuffet (1901-85)
Barbara Hepworth (1903-75)
David Smith (1906-65)
Meret Oppenheim (1913-85)

For a list of the world's most
talented 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, by the best sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Early Life

Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945) was a well established sculptor who created many public installations. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923) was also a sculptor and is best known for his colossal statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia's City Hall tower. Calder's mother, Nanette Lederer Calder (1866-1960) was a portrait painter who had studied at the Academie Julian and Sorbonne in Paris. She met Calder's father while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Calder the Artist

Given this background, it is no surprise that Calder was encouraged from an early age to develop his artistic abilities. From the age of four he was creating sculptures and had his own studio in his parent's house. When he was older, he did not automatically assume a career in the arts, first studying engineering and then going on to work in various jobs. While working on a ship, several years after graduating from engineering college, Calder woke one morning on deck to see both a brilliant full moon and sunrise, visible on opposite horizons.

The experience made a lasting impression and shortly after, in 1923, he decided to become a full time artist.


Cirque Calder

Calder enrolled at the Art Students League in New York and also took a job illustrating for the National Police Gazette. The magazine sent him to sketch scenes from the local circus for two weeks, and so began a lifelong interest. In 1926 he moved to Paris and created his Cirque Calder, a sort of travelling circus set made from cloth, leather, wire and found materials. The pieces represented circus performers which were designed to be manipulated manually by Calder. Soon he was presenting his Cirque Calder in both Paris and New York to much acclaim. The performance lasted two hours and in many ways predated performance art by 40 years. Cirque Calder is now part of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum in New York, but a live performance carried out by the artist in later years can be seen on

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist sculptors like Alexander Calder, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Mobiles and Stabiles

Word quickly spread about Calder's artistic innovation and he was given his first solo exhibition in 1928 at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. He became friendly with some of the key artists of his time, like Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Jean Arp (1886-1966) and Joan Miro (1893-1983). Under the influence of these abstract artists, and after a visit to Piet Mondrian's studio, Calder began to make kinetic works which were christened 'mobiles' by Duchamp. This form of abstract sculpture moved by various systems of cranks and motors. However, Calder soon abandoned the mechanical aspects of the works when he realised he could create moving sculptures simply using the dynamics of air currents instead. Jean Arp baptised the more static sculptures 'stabiles' to distinguish them from mobiles.

Movement fascinated Calder, and it became the central theme of his sculptural output. It also reflected his scientific interest as an engineer. At first his mobiles were small, but gradually increased in size. His Untitled Mobile (1976, National Gallery of Art, Washington) is his largest and measures 9 by 23 metres. The mobiles were usually made from metal rods to which he attached coloured metal shapes.

First Commissions

In 1933 Calder returned to America with his wife, Louisa James, grand-daughter of Henry James. He held his first solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1934. The curator James Johnson Sweeney wrote the preface to the catalogue. During the 1930's Calder also designed sets for ballets, including one for Martha Graham, who was named one of the top female icons of the century by Peoples Magazine. He also continued to give public performances of Cirque Calder. It was during the 1930s that Calder began to increase the size of his sculptures. His first attempts tended to warp in the wind. In 1937 he created his first large bolted stabile, created entirely from sheet metal (Devil Fish, Calder Foundation, New York). This work, along with other mobiles and stabiles were exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. He also exhibited Big Bird (1937, Calder Foundation). Soon after, he received a commission to create Mercury Fountain for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. He was also commissioned to create a large mobile for the stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Lobster Trap and Fish Tail). Other works from the 1930s include: Steel Fish (1934, Calder Foundation) and Yellow Vane (1934, Calder Foundation): both made from sheet metal, wire, lead and paint.


During the war years, Calder continued to create small scale sculptures. Examples include Black Beast (1940, Calder Foundation) made from sheet metal, bolts and paint. Also, The Spider (1940, Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas); Red Petals (1942, Arts Club of Chicago) and The Big Ear (1943, Calder Foundation). However metal was in short supply so he turned increasingly to wood, carving wood elements that were hung together by wire. Duchamp nicknamed them Constellations because he thought they suggested the Cosmos, but Calder did not intend for them to represent anything in particular. In 1943 the Pierre Matisse Gallery held an exhibition of these works, which was his last showing there. After this point Calder chose to exhibit at the Buchholz Gallery.


By the 1950s, Calder was well established. The George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts held a retrospective of his work in 1939 and in 1943 the Museum of Modern Art, New York held a retrospective. Duchamp visited Calder's studio in the mid 1940s and encouraged him to make small scale sculptures which could be easily dismantled and shipped to Europe for exhibitions. The results of these works were exhibited in Paris at the Galerie Louis Carre. Jean Paul Sartre wrote a famous essay about Calder's mobiles for the catalogue. In 1950 Galerie Maeght in Paris held a solo exhibition and thereafter became Calder's exclusive agent in the city. This arrangement lasted until the artist's death. When his New York dealer died in 1954, he selected the Perls Gallery in New York as his new art dealer, and this arrangement also lasted until the end of his life.

Large Scale Sculptures

In the last two decades of his life, Calder focused primarily on larger scale sculptures. Examples include .125 (1957) now on view at JFK Airport; La Spirale (1958, UNESCO, Paris); Teodelapio (1962, Spoleto, Italy) and Man (1967, Expo. Montreal). Also, El Sol Rojo (1968, Aztec Stadium, Mexico City) and La Grande Vitesse (1969, Grand Rapids, Michigan). The number of public works Calder undertook was immense: for a selected listing, see below. With their endlessly surprising movements, Calder's mobiles always provided critics with something to talk about.


Calder died in New York at the age of 78, just a few weeks after a major retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1987 the Calder Foundation was established by his family which acts as his official Estate, but also runs its own programs and collaborates on exhibitions. In 2003, an untitled work of Calder sold for over $5 million at Christie's New York, confirming Calder's status as one of the greatest twentieth century sculptors.

American Sculptures By Alexander Calder

His public works in America include the following:

The Clove (1970, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts)

The Hawk for Peace (1968, Berkeley Art Museum)
Three Quintains (1964, LA County Museum of Art)
Four Arches (1974, Security Pacific National Bank, LA)
Spinal Column (1968, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego)
The Falcon (1963, Stanford University)
Button Flower (1959, UCLA)

Gallows and Lollipops (1960, Yale University Art Gallery)

Three Up, Three Down (1973, High Museum, Atlanta)

Flamingo (1974, Federal Center Plaza, Chicago)
Universe (1974, Sears Tower, Chicago)
Flying Dragon (1975, Sculpture Garden, Art Institute of Chicago)
Le Baron (1965, Northern Illinois University)

Peau Rouge Indian (1970, Musical Arts Center, Indiana University)

The Red Feather (1975, Kentucky Center for the Arts, Louisville)

Four Dishes (1967, The Baltimore Museum of Art)
The 100 Yard Dash (1969, The Baltimore Museum of Art)

La Grande Voile (The Big Sail, 1965, MIT, Cambridge)

La Grande Vitesse (1969, Vandenberg Plaza, Grand Rapids)
Jeune fille et sa Suite (1970, Michigan Bell Telephone Building, Detroit)

The Spinner (1966, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis)
Octopus (1964, Walker Art Center)

Tom's Cubicle (1967, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City)
Ordinary (1969, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
Five Rudders (1965, Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis)
Shiva (1965, Crown Center, Kansas City)

New Jersey
Hard to Swallow (1966, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken)
The Stevens Mobile (1970, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken)
Five Discs, One Empty (1970, The Art Museum, Princeton University)

New York
.125 (1957, International Terminal 4, John F. Kennedy International Airport)
Triangles and Arches (1965, Empire State Plaza, Albany)
The Arch (1975, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville)
Object in Five Planes (1965, Federal Plaza, NY)
The Ticket Window (1963, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, NYC)
Saurien (1975, IBM Building, NYC)
Black Widow (1959, Sculpture Garden at MoMA, NYC)

Stegosaurus (1972, entrance of Toledo Art Museum, Toledo)

Caracas (1955, Oklahoma City Museum of Art)

The Ghost (1964, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
White Cascade (1975, Federal Reserve Bank of PA, Philadelphia)
Back from Rio (1959, Science Center, Swarthmore College)

Pregnant Whale (1963, Hunter Museum, Chattanooga)
Lily Pad (1968, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)

Three Bollards (1970, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas)
The Crab (1962, Cullen Sculpture Garden, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Washington DC.
Mountains and Clouds (1976-87, Hart Senate Building)
6 Dots Over a Mountain (1956, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
Untitled mobile (1976, National Gallery of Art)
Cheval Rouge (Red Horse) (1974, Sculpture Garden, National Gallery of Art)
Two Faced Guy (1969, Phillips Collection)
Gwenfritz (1968, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

International Sculptures By Alexander Calder

His public works around the globe include the following:

Bobine (1970, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra)
Crossed Blades (1967, Australia Square Tower, Sydney)

The Dog (1958, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Museum, Antwerp)
Whirling Ear (1957, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels)

Man (1967, Montreal)

Slender Ribs (1963, Sculpture Garden, Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek)
Little Janey Waney (1976, Louisiana Museum)
Almost Snow Plow (1976, Louisiana Museum)

Monsieur Loyal (1967, Sculpture Park, Grenoble Museum)
Trois Pics (1967, Nouvelle Gare SNCF Train Station, Grenoble)
Theatre de Nice (1970, Theatre National de Nice)
The Red Spider (1976, Paris)
Nageoire (1964, Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris)
La Spirale (1958, UNESCO building, Paris)
The Broken Wings (1967, Saint Exupery College, Perpignan)
The Three Wings (1963, Museum of Modern Art, Saint-Etienne)
Guillotine for Eight (1963, Villeneuve d'Ascq)

Heads and Tail (1965, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
Les Triangles (1963, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund)
Hextopus (1955, American Consulate General, Frankfurt)
Le Hallebardier (1971, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover)
Crinkly with a Red Disc (1973, Stuttgarter Schlossplatz)

Teodelapio (1962, City of Spoleto)
Sabot (1963, Sculpture Garden, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)

Cactus Provisoire (1967, Trinity College, Dublin)

The Fish Bones (1966, The Hakone Open-Air Museum, Kanagawa)
Fafnir-Dragon II (1969, Nagoya City Art Museum)

El Sol Rojo (1968, Aztec Stadium, Mexico City)

South Korea
Grand Crinkly (1971, Ho-am Art Museum, Seoul)

Four Wings (1972, Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona)
Mercury Fountain (1937, Fundacio Joan Miró, Barcelona)

Three Wings (1963, City of Gotenborg)

The Tree (1966, Fondation Beyeler, Basel)
Big Spider (1959, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel)
Brasilia (1965, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny)
Stabile (1963, Nestle Art Collection, Le Vevey)

The City (1960, Museum of Fine Arts, Caracas)
Aula Magna (1954, Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas)

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