At Large  April 28, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Alexander Calder's Balancing Act in Art and Life

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Alexander Calder, Eagle, 1971, painted steel, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, WA

Iconic American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898―1976) invented “mobiles”―carefully balanced, often whimsical kinetic hanging sculptures, powered by wind or motors. He also invented wire sculpture―line drawings made of wire, and built massive freestanding abstract sculptures or “stabiles.” While some of his work is figurative, he mainly focused on abstraction, using geometric forms coupled with a limited color palette, to create strikingly evocative shapes and installations that elicit a sense of wonder and power. 

Born in Pennsylvania into a family of artists―his father and grandfather were both well-known sculptors and his mother was a professional portrait painter―Calder created his first sculptural piece, a clay elephant, at around age four. Although his family moved frequently between Pennsylvania, Arizona, California, and New York, throughout his childhood and adolescence, they made sure he always had studio space. His interest in motion was expressed early on; he experimented with kinetic sculpture as a pre-teen and teenager, building a duck out of sheet metal that rocked when touched and a gravity-powered system of mechanical trains. In 1919, after studying mechanical engineering in college, Calder worked as a hydraulic engineer and draftsman, a passenger ship mechanic, and a timekeeper at a logging camp, before deciding to pursue an art career. 

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(Two Acrobats) by Alexander Calder, c. 1928, brass wire and wood

Calder moved to New York in 1923 and studied art while working for the National Police Gazette. Calder’s assignment to sketch the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1925 began a lifelong fascination with circus imagery. After moving to Paris in 1926 to continue his art studies, Calder befriended a group of avant-garde artists, including Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, and Marcel Duchamp. In 1928, Calder met Louisa James, the grand-niece of novelist Henry James, on a transatlantic voyage. The pair married in 1931.

While Calder had started to explore abstractionism, he didn’t fully embrace abstraction until after a tour of Mondrian’s studio, which had a considerable impact on his sensibilities. Already an artist with moderately successful solo shows on both sides of the Atlantic, Calder had his first abstract exhibition in Paris in 1931 and exhibited with the Abstraction-Création group in 1933.

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Calder Room, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Calder frequently worked with found objects, as well as wood, metal, and wire, meticulously designing his sculptures, which often involved delicately balanced, shifting parts. In 1926, he began crafting dozens of kinetic wire sculptures inspired by circus imagery, small enough to be packed into a large suitcase. These became one of his most beloved installations, Cirque Calder, a transportable circus menagerie designed to be manually manipulated for performance art installations. 

“Mobile” is a French pun meaning both "motion" and "motive.” Calder's friend Duchamp coined the term to describe the wonderfully changeable suspended sculptures, which shift and move in response to either wind or a discrete motor, creating an interplay of form and space. Jean Arp dubbed Calder’s large free-standing abstract sculptures, "stabiles," to differentiate them from “mobiles.” The 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne included Calder's stabile Mercury Fountain.

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Alexander Calder's L'empennage (1953), Pictured in 2002 when it was displayed in the sculpture garden of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Calder built his reputation and audience over the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1948, he nearly sold out an entire solo show in Rio de Janeiro, becoming the first internationally renowned sculptor. His work is in museum and gallery collections and outdoor installations all over the world. Many of his outdoor sculptures have become beloved landmarks and cultural touchstones.

In addition to sculpture, Calder also designed stage sets for over a dozen theatrical productions, designed jewelry using wire, porcelain shards, and found objects, produced illustrations for books and journals, and was commissioned to paint airline jets and the first vehicle in the BMW Art Car Project.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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