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).
MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
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.
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 youtube.com.
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.
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:
International Sculptures By Alexander Calder
His public works around the globe include the following:
For more about the history and styles
of plastic art, see: Art Encyclopedia.