American sculptor, painter, and illustrator Alexander Calder (1898-1976), through his construction of wire mobiles, pioneered kinetic sculpture.
Alexander Calder was born in Philadelphia, the son of a well-known sculptor and educator and his wife, a talented painter. Calder's grandfather, also a sculptor, executed the figure of William Penn that graces the dome of the city hall in Philadelphia. Though he was brought up in an artistic atmosphere, Calder's own inclinations were mechanical. He trained as a mechanical engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, studying such things as descriptive geometry, mechanical drawing, and applied kinetics—the branch of science that deals with the effects of force on free-moving bodies—in preparation for receiving his degree in 1919.
After working at a number of jobs that allowed him time for travel and reflection over the next few years, Calder decided to explore his growing interest in art. In 1923, two years after beginning his study of drawing in night school, he enrolled fulltime at the Art Students League in New York City. There he attended classes given by George Luks, Guy Pène Du Bois, and John Sloan, all important American painters of that period. Calder also did freelance work as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette for about two years. In 1926 he had his first one-man exhibition of paintings at the Artist's Gallery in New York City. While concentrating on painting, Calder also worked on wood sculpture, and when he visited Paris in 1926 he continued to carve.
Circus Brought Lasting Fame
Calder's first significant recognition as an artist came when he exhibited his now-famous miniature circus with its animated wire performers at Paris's Salon des Humoristes in 1927. The idea for the toy figures can be traced back to sketches he made in 1925 while reporting on the circus for the Police Gazette. Made from wire, rubber, cork, buttons, bottle caps, wood, and other small "found" objects, Calder's circus includes lions, acrobats, trapeze artists, elephants, a ringmaster, and numerous other figures. Unlike many art works of the period, the unusual creation drew crowds from outside the artistic community as well as within, and the thirty-year-old artist found himself suddenly widely known.
Calder's first wire sculpture, Josephine Baker (1926), a witty linear representation of the famous American-born chanteuse, was exhibited to the Paris art community during the same period that his circus was drawing attention. He decided to return to New York City late in 1927, where he gave a one-man show that included Josephine Baker, as well as several of his other wire portraits. Those portraits would grow increasingly three dimensional as the artist refined his technique.
Influenced by Modernists
In November 1928 Calder was again in Paris, supporting himself with performances of his miniature circus, one of which was attended by Spanish surrealist Joan Miró. Calder had his first one-man shows in Paris at the Galérie Billiet and in Berlin in 1929. In Paris he met a number of important modernists, including Fernand Léger, Theo Van Doesburg, and Piet Mondrian, the latter whose work particularly impressed him. By 1930 Calder was making large-scale abstract wire sculptures using flat metal ovals painted black or bright colors, as well as small balls or other shapes suspended by long wires. Many of these work suggested the solar system in their design. From these beginnings he developed motor-driven sculptures, which featured objects hanging from large bases, although the artist had no fondness for the regular, predictable motion provided by motors. An exhibition of Calder's kinetic sculptures was seen by Marcel Duchamp, who referred to them as "mobiles"—a term which became associated with this work. He made a number of sculptures during the thirties which employed the same forms as the mobiles but were static, and known as "stabiles."
Meanwhile, in 1931 Calder was married to Louisa James, who he had met on a voyage to New York City; that same year he illustrated an edition of Aesop's Fables. Two years later Calder made his first draft-propelled mobiles. Rather than following a monotonous path of motion as did his motor-driven sculptures, these pieces create myriad patterns once they are set in action by a breeze or gentle push. Their shapes, largely ovoid and biomorphic, may have been inspired by the art of Miró. In 1933 Calder and his wife bought a farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he established his studio. In 1935 and again in 1936 he designed stage sets for the dancer Martha Graham.
Commissioned Works Prompted Travel
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City gave a comprehensive exhibition of Calder's work in 1943, during which the artist gave performances of his famous circus; the show's catalog was the first extensive study on the artist. The following year he made sculptures out of plaster to be cast in bronze. These pieces moved at a slow, measured pace. During this period he illustrated Three Young Rats (1944), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with Robert Penn Warren's essay on Coleridge (1945), and The Fables of LaFontaine (1946). At this time Calder's international reputation was reinforced by exhibitions in New York, Amsterdam, Berne, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Boston, and Richmond, Virginia. In 1952 he designed the acoustical ceiling for the Aula Magna at the university in Caracas and received the first prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale. Commissions for his designs continued to pour in as he created everything from jewelry to costume and stage-set designs for dance and theatrical performances. In the 1970s, at the height of Calder's fame, Braniff Airlines commissioned him to paint some of their jet planes with his unique, boldly colorful designs.
Calder's works are featured in permanent installations around the world. In 1955 he travelled to India to execute 11 mobiles for public buildings in Ahmadabad. He designed many monumental pieces, including those for Lincoln Center in New York City, for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, for the gardens of UNESCO in Paris, and for Expo '67 at Montreal. In 1964, when the artist was in his late seventies, he was honored with a comprehensive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City; a smaller one was given at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. At his death in 1976, Calder was eulogized by Minneapolis, Minnesota, curator Marvin Friedman as "one of the greatest form-givers America has ever produced."
Further Reading on Alexander Calder
Excellent for its plates and its interpretations of Calder's sculptures is H. H. Arnason, Calder (1966). Also recommended are Calder's own Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures (1966), and James Johnson Sweeney, Alexander Calder (1943; rev. ed. 1951).