Alexander Calder

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Renowned American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is remembered for his innovative approach to work in three dimensions, as both a sculptor and as the originator of the mobile artwork. Calder also produced paintings and prints, miniatures, theatre designs, jewellery, tapestries and political posters throughout his career. His works on paper display a true virtuosity of two-dimensional abstraction.

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Works

Sea Creatures, 1969

Alexander Calder

Composition (Pyramid and Sun on Target), 1973

Alexander Calder

Great Yellow Sun, 1973

Alexander Calder

Kwai, 1974

Alexander Calder

6 Circles, 1973

Alexander Calder

Harbour, 1972

Alexander Calder

Split Boulders, 1974

Alexander Calder

Sur les Pointes, 1969

Alexander Calder

Two Red Boomerangs, 1973

Alexander Calder

Cacti, 1972

Alexander Calder

Untitled (Sun, Moon and Stars), 1976

Alexander Calder

The Red Crescent, 1972

Alexander Calder

Untitled (Orbit of Jupiter), 1964

Alexander Calder

Untitled, 1943

Alexander Calder

Face with Red and Blue Cross, 1965

Alexander Calder

Early Life

Alexander Calder was born into an artistic family on 22 July 1898 in Lawton, Pennsylvania. His father was the well-known sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder and both his grandfather and mother were also artists. When Calder was young his father contracted tuberculosis and his family had to move from Pennsylvania to Pasadena, California. His parents gave him a room in the basement of the house that Calder used as his first studio. Using scraps of copper wire he found on the street, Calder would make jewellery for his sister’s dolls.

In 1909, the family briefly returned to Philadelphia where Calder attended Germantown Academy before moving again to Croton-on-Hudson, New York. For the next few years Calder and his family moved back and forth between New York and California, where Calder remained in 1915 to complete his high school education. In the same year, Calder enrolled at Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey to study mechanical engineering. Although he chose the subject arbitrarily, as a friend was enrolling to study the same subject, Calder excelled at mathematics and he used the skills he learnt during his degree in his approach to his later artworks and innovations.

Calder received his degree in 1919 and spent the following years in a variety of jobs including working as a hydraulics engineer and as a draughtsman for the New York Edison Company. Though his parents disapproved of his pursuing a career as an artist, Calder also painted intensively in the years after graduating.

Career

In 1926, Calder moved to Paris to pursue his artistic career. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and established his studio in Paris’s Montparnasse Quarter. One of his earliest interests and inspirations was the circus. He created the Cirque Calder, fashioned out of an array of found objects, and would transport the circus in two suitcases and give performances to friends. He added to the circus continuously and made small earnings from the performances. Calder always carried wire and pliers with him so he could ‘sketch’ with them. These wire sketches, which would come to be known as ‘drawings in space’, are an early example of Calder’s innovative approach.

While living in Paris Calder became acquainted with many leading art world figures including Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp and Fernand Léger. A turning point in Calder’s career came when he visited the studio of acclaimed De Stijl artist, Piet Mondrian, in 1930. Calder suggested that Mondrian introduce movement into his abstract, geometric paintings. Mondrian did not agree with the suggestion and instead Calder began experimenting with movement himself.

Calder’s kinetic sculptures, for which he is best-known, are some of the earliest manifestations of an art that consciously departed from the traditional notion of the art work as a static object. Initially Calder used motors to make his mobiles of coloured wire and abstracted shapes move but abandoned the method soon after and began using air currents alone and embracing the aesthetics of chance. Calder had his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1929.

Returning to America in 1933, Calder and his wife Louisa settled in Connecticut where they remained for the next few decades. In the mid-1930s Calder continued to develop his mobiles, experimenting with open air sculptures which moved according to the wind and which sought to immerse themselves within the natural environment. Concurrently, Calder also began creating ‘stabiles’, named to distinguish them from his mobiles, with the same approach to colour and abstraction. These static sculptures used the same methods of counter weights and balance to be self-supporting objects. By the end of the decade Calder had become one of the most important artists of the time both in America and in Europe. In 1937, his sculpture Mercury Fountain, which he created as a direct counterpart to Picasso’s Guernica, was exhibited in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the World Fair in Paris.

During the Second World War, owing to a scarcity a metal, Calder returned to working with carved wood to create open form sculptures which he called ?constellations’. Although his sculpture relies on abstraction, his works, in particular his constellations, were often influenced or inspired by the cosmos and nature. A second solo exhibition in Paris in 1946 further cemented Calder’s position as an influential figure in the Modernist movement.

Returning to working with metal after the war, Calder concentrated his efforts on producing monumental sculptures and during the 1950s and 1960s he received a number of important public commissions. Notable examples include .125 (1957) for JFK Airport, Spirale (1958) commissioned for UNESCO in Paris and El Sol Rojo (1968) commissioned for the Olympic Games in Mexico City. His sculpture La Grande Vitesse (1969) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the first civic sculpture to be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. To create these large-scale works Calder would make maquettes in order to work out their dynamics which would then be scaled up by engineers to Calder’s specifications.

Although primarily known for his sculpture, Calder also produced paintings and prints, miniatures, theatres designs, jewellery, tapestries and political posters throughout his career. During his lifetime, Calder’s varied artistic output was celebrated in a number of retrospective exhibitions including an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943, the Guggenheim, New York in 1964 and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 1974. Calder died on 11th November 1976 shortly after the opening of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of America Art, New York.

Exhibitions and Awards

Calder is one of the most celebrated artists of the twentieth century and remembered for his unique contribution to Modernism. His work is included in the permanent collections of numerous international institutions including the Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He was also the recipient of several awards, representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1952, receiving an Honorary Doctarate from Harvard University, as well as the Legion d’Honneur in 1974 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1977.

Related

Notes, News and Press

Notes

In Motion: Calder on Paper