Alexander Calder

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Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder (July 22 1898November 11 1976), also known as Sandy Calder, was an American sculptor and artist most famous for inventing the mobile. In addition to mobile and stabile sculpture, Alexander Calder also created paintings, lithographs, and tapestry, and designed carpets.



Born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, Calder came from a family of sculptors, with both his father Alexander Stirling Calder and grandfather Alexander Milne Calder sharing the same name. Whilst his mother, Nanette Lederer Calder was a painter.

Although his parents encouraged his creativity as a child, they discouraged their children from becoming artists, knowing that it was an uncertain and financially difficult career. Calder initially trained as a mechanical engineer, receiving a degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919. For the next several years he worked a variety of engineering jobs, such as assistant to a hydraulics engineer and engineer in a Canadian logging camp, but he wasn't content in any of the roles. In June 1922, Calder started work as a fireman in the boiler room of the passenger ship H. F. Alexander. While the ship sailed from San Francisco to New York, Calder woke early one morning and saw a sunrise with moon-set which deeply impressed him with the wonders of the universe, and set him on the path of becoming an artist. As he describes in his autobiography;

It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch — a coil of rope — I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other.
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Red Mobile, 1956. Painted sheet metal and metal rods. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Having decided to become an artist, Calder moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students' League. Whilst a student, Calder became fascinated with the circus, sketching a number of studies on circus themes and sculpting a number of wire frame circus animals and carnival performers. Upon graduating, Calder moved to Paris to continue his studies in art. He took his wire model circus with him, and gave elaborately improvised shows recreating the performance of a real circus. Soon, his Cirque Calder became popular with the Parisian avant-garde, and Calder was charging an entrance fee to see his two hour show of a circus that he could pack into suitcase.

In 1928 Calder had his first solo show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York and he spent much of the next decade crossing the Atlantic to give shows in Europe and America.

On one transatlantic steamer, he met his wife Louisa James. They married in 1931.

Whilst in Paris, Calder met and became friends with a number of avant-garde artists including Joan Miró, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. A visit to Piet Mondrian's studio in 1930 "shocked" him into embracing abstract art.

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An Alexander Calder mobile, c. 1943

The Cirque Calder can be seen as the start of Calder's interest in both wire modeling and kinetic art with an eye to the engineering balance of the sculptures. These were all the qualities required to develop mobiles, the name Duchamp gave to Calder's kinetic sculptures. He designed some of the characters in the circus to perform suspended from a thread. However, it was the mixture of his experiments to develop purely abstract sculpture following his visit with Mondrian that lead to his first truly kinetic sculptures which were manipulated by a means of cranks and pulleys.

By the end of 1931 he had quickly moved on to more delicate sculptures which derived their motion from the air currents in the room, and true mobiles were born. At much the same time, Calder was also experimenting with self supporting, static, abstract sculptures, dubbed "stabiles" by Arp to differentiate them from mobiles.

Calder and Louisa returned to America in 1933 to settle in a farmhouse they purchased in Roxbury, Connecticut, where they raised a family (first daughter, Sandra born 1935, second daughter, Mary, in 1939). Calder continued to give Cirque Calder performances, but also met Martha Graham and designed stage sets for her ballets with Erik Satie.

During the World War II, Calder attempted to join up as a marine, but was rejected. Instead, he continued to sculpt, but a scarcity of metal lead to him producing work in carved wood. After the war, Calder had several major retrospective exhibitions, including one in the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943.

Man, a "stabile" by Alexander Calder; Terre des Hommes (Expo 67 fairground), Île Sainte-Hélène,
Man, a "stabile" by Alexander Calder; Terre des Hommes (Expo 67 fairground), Île Sainte-Hélène, Montreal

In the 1950s, Calder increasingly concentrated his efforts on producing monumental sculptures. Notable examples are .125 for JFK Airport in 1957, and La Spirale for UNESCO in Paris 1958. Calder's largest sculpture at 20.5 m high, was El Sol Rojo constructed for the Olympic games in Mexico City.

In 1966 Calder published his Autobiography with Pictures with the help of his son-in-law Jean Davidson.

Calder died on November 11 1976, shortly following the opening of another major retrospective show at the Whitney Museum New York.

Reporter: How do you know when its time to stop [working]?
Calder: When it's suppertime.
- From a television interview

Selected works

  • Dog (1909), folded brass sheet. Made as a present for Calder's parents.
  • The Flying Trapeze (1925), oil on canvas, 36 x 42 in.
  • Elephant (c. 1928), wire and wood, 11 1/2 x 5 3/4 x 29.2in. A figure in the Cirque Calder
  • Aztec Josephine Baker (c. 1929), wire, 53" x 10" x 9". A performing figure in the Cirque Calder, and a representation of Josephine Baker the exuberant lead dancer from La Révue Nègre at the Folies Bergère.
  • Untitled (1931), wire, wood, and motor. One of the first kinetic mobiles.
  • Feathers (1931), wire, wood, and paint. First true mobile, although designed to stand on a desktop.
  • Cone d'ebene (1933), ebony, metal bar and wire. First suspended mobile.
  • Form Against Yellow (1936), sheet metal, wire, plywood, string, and paint. Wall supported mobile.
  • Mercury Fountain (1937), mercury, resin.
  • Devil Fish (1937), sheet metal, bolts, and paint. First outdoor, garden stabile.
  • 1939 New York World's Fair (maquette) (1938), sheet metal, wire, wood, string, and paint.
  • Necklace (c. 1938), brass wire, glass, and mirror
  • Sphere Pierced by Cylinders (1939), wire and paint [1] ( the first an many floor standing, life size stabiles (predating Anthony Caro's plinthless sculptures by two decades.)
  • Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939), sheet metal, wire, and paint. Suspended mobile, design for the stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Black Beast (1940), sheet metal, bolts, and paint. Freestanding plinthless stabile.
  • S-Shaped Vine (1946), sheet metal, wire, and paint. Suspended mobile.
  • Sword Plant (1947) sheet metal, wire, and paint. Stabile.
  • Snow Flurry (1948), sheet metal, wire, and paint. Suspended mobile.
  • .125 (1957), steel plate, rods, and paint
  • La Spirale (1958), steel plate, rod, and paint, 360" high. Public monumental mobile for Maison de l'U.N.E.S.C.O., Paris.
  • Teodelapio (1962), steel plate and paint, monumental stabile, Spoleto Italy
  • Man (1967) stainless steel plate, bolts, and paint, 65' x 83' x 53', monumental stabile, Montreal Canada
  • La Grande vitesse (1969), steel plate, bolts, and paint, 43' x 55' x 25', Grand Rapids Michigan.
  • The Red Feather, (1975), black and red painted steel, 11' x 6'3" x 11'2", The Kentucky Center.
  • Untitled (1976), aluminum honeycomb, tubing, and paint, 358 1/2 x 912", National Gallery of Art Washington.


  • Alexander Calder: An Autobiography With Pictures, HarperCollins, ISBN 0068532687

External links

fr:Alexander Calder sv:Alexander Calder


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