This Week in History: Alexander Calder died


Alexander Calder, Alexander (July 22, 1898 – Nov. 11, 1976), sculptor, painter, and printmaker, was born in Philadelphia into a family of accomplished artists. His mother, Nanette Lederer, was a painter; his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, and his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, were well-known sculptors.

Calder’s childhood home was a virtual studio. He was a model for both parents’ work: at the age of four he posed for his father’s sculpture Man Cub (1902), and later for his mother’s oil paintings. He became familiar early on with the materials and processes of painting and sculpture. At the age of five, Calder was making little wire and wood figures; by eight he was making jewelry for his older sister Peggy’s dolls. Nevertheless, he did not seem to desire art as a career. Instead, he preferred his workshop and was adept at using tools of all sorts. Consequently, in 1917, after graduating from Lowell High School in Berkeley, Calif., Calder entered the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919. His keen knowledge of materials and construction (his marks in descriptive geometry were the highest ever given), coupled with his innovative artistic spirit, would become one of the hallmarks of his art.

In the spring of 1925 Calder, armed with a two-week pass to cover the Barnum and Bailey Circus, spent every evening sketching the performances. This experience developed into the miniature circus performances that became his signature work in the late 1920’s. Composed of wire figures that he ingeniously animated, Calder’s circus performances became the talk of the Paris art world between 1927 and 1930. The circus not only brought Calder his first success as a sculptor but also introduced him to important members of the European avant-garde.

In 1930, Calder became a member of the Abstraction-Création group that included Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, Robert Delaunay, Antoine Pevsner, and Jean Hélion. Joan Miró became a lifelong friend. Marcel Duchamp, an important ally both in Paris and the United States, suggested the term “mobile” for Calder’s movable sculptures; Arp coined the term “stabile” for Calder’s stationary works. Fernand Léger wrote a preface for the catalog of Calder’s first exhibition of abstract constructions, held at the Galerie Percier (April-May 1931). He was one of the few Americans represented in the only group exhibition of surrealist artists held in the United States, First Papers of Surrealism (October-November 1942). Moreover, Calder was one of a handful of American artists to gain the respect of the European moderns at this time.

In the fall of 1930, Calder visited Mondrian’s studio, an event that would have a profound effect on the future development of his work. It was Mondrian, of all his notable associates, whom Calder would later acknowledge as a direct influence on his career. After a chance visit to one of Calder’s circus performances in his Paris studio, Mondrian, impressed with Calder’s work, invited him to visit his studio. Mondrian’s studio, with its immaculate white walls and removable rectangles of brilliant primary colors, provided “the necessary shock” that led Calder into abstraction. Calder remarked later how enlightening this experience was for him: “Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract.’ So now, at thirty-two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.” His enthusiasm for painting was short-lived, however, lasting only three weeks. More important, Calder adopted Mondrian’s spartan palette of the primary colors, black, and white, which he would use throughout his career in his sculpture and graphic work.

Shortly after his return to America, Calder married Louisa Cushing James on Jan. 17, 1931; they had two children. After his return to Paris the same year, Calder’s newfound interest in abstraction was realized with his exhibition at the Galerie Percier. In the winter he began making works with movable parts that were both hand-cranked and run by an electric motor.

Although Calder’s oeuvre is vast, the work for which he is best known is his kinetic sculpture. In fact, his name is synonymous with movement in art. His sculpture is so much his own that it necessitated its own lexicon: mobiles, stabiles, totems, constellations, gongs, and crags. There are several theories on the origin of Calder’s interest in movable art. It is suggested that as a young man in San Francisco, he came under the spell of the cable cars with their intricate machinery (especially the wires and cables) and the movement of the brightly colored cars. More directly, in 1929, he saw a collection of eighteenth-century mechanical birds in cages in New York that inspired his first moving sculptures: a series of mechanized works in which fish swim about. Of course Calder was no stranger to making works of art move. His earlier circus performances provided ample precedent. Calder had said that even before he had visited Mondrian’s studio, he “felt that art was too static to reflect our world of movement.”

Calder was not the first artist to investigate movement. In the early 1910’s the Italian Futurists tried to suggest the illusion of movement in their paintings and sculptures, but their works remained physically static. The Russian-born constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo was an early pioneer of kinetic works. However, Gabo’s Kinetic Sculpture (1920) offered only the rhythmic swing of a single element. Calder’s innovation was to allow multiple objects to move simultaneously. In the words of Jean Lipman: “Although not the first to make sculpture move, Calder was the first to create an art of motion.” Some of the early constructions were mechanically driven by small electric motors that set up programmed trajectories. The large (thirty-three by fifty-five feet) lobby sculpture installation in the Sears Tower, Universe (1974), is a later important example of this last type.

The motorized works had one drawback: they could become monotonous in their prescribed patterns of movement. Calder’s solution was to allow for a freer natural movement. The result was his first wind-operated mobile. Although he continued to work on both the mechanized sculpture and the wind mobiles simultaneously between 1930 and 1933, it was the latter that proved more successful, both critically and aesthetically for his future production in this medium. Many of the mobiles feature several shapes of differing sizes and are painted in primary colors. They are delicately balanced on pivoting rods that move with the slightest air current. This allows for an ever-shifting play of forms and relationships in space. France Forever (1944, dedicated to the French Resistance) is an early sculpture of this type. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introductory essay to the catalog for an exhibition of Calder’s mobiles at the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris in 1946. He saw a connection between Calder’s work and his own existential philosophy. He wrote: “Calder’s mobiles signify nothing, they do not send one back to anything but to themselves: they are, that is all: they are absolutes.” The level of abstraction that Mondrian had initiated, Calder had successfully achieved in the mobiles.

While Calder did not want to openly imitate nature, he did want to suggest the things of the life world. For the catalog of a Caracas exhibition (1955), he wrote: “From the beginnings of my abstract work, even when it might not have seemed so, I felt there was no better model for me to choose than the Universe.” Many of his themes, his symbols, and his images are related to the cosmos: sun, moon, stars, and spirals. These images appear again and again in the numerous gouaches that he began painting in the 1930’s. Calder’s world of imagery is both macro and micro. He also created shapes that suggest insects and crabs. Calder’s particular genius was his ability to work on a grand scale (some works are as large as fifty-nine feet high), using structural steel and bold forms, and at the same time to create intimate worlds through his delicate jewelry or his small sculptures of fish and animals.

The stabiles became Calder’s largest endeavors in sculpture, approaching the scale of architecture. His first large-scale stabile, Whale, was constructed in 1937. Calder’s later work, especially after 1950, began to outgrow his studios and his ability to execute the work himself. As large public commissions came his way in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Calder needed the assistance of factories skilled in iron and steel fabrication. Many of his public pieces were commissioned by some of the leading architects of the time. I. M. Pei in 1966 commissioned La Grande Voile, a monumental stabile forty feet high and weighing twenty-five tons, for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Calder’s stabiles have been installed in cities throughout the world: from New York to Los Angeles in the United States; from Mexico City to Caracas, Venezuela; from Sydney, Australia, to Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Well into his seventies, Calder continued to produce stabiles that grew steadily in scale and boldness. He brought to a public who knew little about contemporary art sculpture that was a curious blend of whimsy and formal rigor. Many cities that were recipients of his work used the occasion as a reason to celebrate. Chicago held a Calder festival in 1974 for the dedication of two major pieces: Universe, a motorized mural for the Sears Tower, and Flamingo, a stabile commissioned by the General Services Administration for the Federal Center Plaza. In addition, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago held a large retrospective exhibition.

After 1930, Calder had numerous international one-man exhibitions. His first retrospective, at age forty, was at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Gallery, in Springfield, Mass. (November 1938). James Johnson Sweeney, his future biographer, wrote the foreword to the catalog. Sweeney later organized a major exhibition of Calder’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that opened on Sept. 29, 1943. In 1955, Calder was featured as one of the pioneers of motion in art in the first exhibition devoted exclusively to kinetic art, Le Mouvement, organized by the Galerie Denise René in Paris.

Calder exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and received first prize for sculpture; the following year he was awarded a prize at the Sõ Paulo Bienal. He was honored with the Grand Prix National des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and the United Nations Peace Medal in 1974 and 1975, respectively.

Known primarily for his work in traditional media–painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking–Calder explored various other forms of expression. Throughout his career he was involved in several theatrical productions. Most notable are his mobiles for Martha Graham’s Panorama (1935) and another set of mobiles for a production of Erik Satie’s 1920 symphonic drama, Socrate, produced at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. (1936). Works in Progress, a “ballet” conceived by Calder that featured an array of mobiles, stabiles, and large painted backdrops, was produced with electronic music at the Rome Opera House in 1968.

One of Calder’s most celebrated ventures in unconventional media involved the painting of a 157-foot McDonnell-Douglas jet aptly called Flying Colors, which was commissioned by Braniff International in 1973. Two years later Braniff asked Calder to design a flagship for its American fleet in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. The result was Flying Colors of the United States, a 727-200 jet painted with a rippled image of red, white, and blue echoing the waving American flag.

On Oct. 14, 1976, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City mounted the largest retrospective of Calder’s work to date. Less than one month later, he died of a heart attack in New York City.

Calder’s legacy is far-reaching. Not only did he leave an abundant body of work, but many of his most important sculptures are on public view around the world. His pioneering use of industrial materials and fabrication processes has informed much contemporary sculpture. An appropriate epitaph for Calder can be found in the words of the art historian and critic John Russell: “In the man, as in the work, iron is the metal.”

Source Citation

“Alexander Calder.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995. Biography in Context. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310016597

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