Alexander Calder - Biography and Legacy
New York, New York, USA
Biography of Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder, known as Sandy, was born into a long line of sculptors, being part of the fourth generation to take up the art form. Constructing objects from a very young age, his first known art tool was a pair of pliers. At eight, Calder was creating jewelry for his sister's dolls from beads and copper wire. Over the next few years, as his family moved to Pasadena, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco, he crafted small animal figures and game boards from scavenged wood and brass. Calder's interest initially led not to art, but to mechanical engineering and applied kinetics, which he studied at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915-1919).
After graduating from college, Calder tried many jobs: automotive engineer, draftsman and map-colorist, steam boat stoker, and hydraulics engineer among them. In 1922, he took evening drawing classes at the 42nd Street New York Public School. The next year he studied painting at the Arts Students League (1923-1926), with John Sloan and George Luks while working as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette. An assignment to illustrate acts at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus led to his interest in the circus.
In 1926, after showing paintings at The Artists' Gallery in New York he moved to Paris. Once there, he began making the moving toys and figures that would become Calder's Circus(1926-31). He also began using wire to produce linear portraits and figurative sculptures. He became popular in the art world for his Calder's Circus performances during which he set in motion the many different characters and animals he had created. In Paris, Calder met Joan Miró, who became an important influence and close friend. In 1929, Calder began producing jewelry with the same wire he used in his sculpture. He continued jewelry work throughout his career, primarily making necklaces, rings, brooches, and bracelets for friends. Calder moved frequently from studio to studio and between New York and Paris. On one of his many transatlantic boat trips he met Louisa James, who he married in 1931.
In the late 1920s Calder created more figurative oil paintings, but a 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian's studio led Calder to shift from figuration to the abstraction permanently. Upon entering the studio, Calder became fixated on the colored rectangles covering one of the walls: he said he would like to make them physically move. Calder joined the influential Abstraction-Creation group and focused on finding a way to make abstract color move through space. A year later he exhibited his first abstract wire works and produced his initial, groundbreaking mechanized sculptures, pioneering kinetic art. Marcel Duchamp named these works "mobiles," a term that also encompassed the subsequent sculptures Calder created that relied on the movement of air rather than motors.
During the 1930s, Calder also began making non-kinetic sculptures, which Hans Arp referred to as "stabiles." Like the mobiles, Calder's stabiles openly incorporated the components of their fabrication, such as fastening flanges and bolts, as visible elements of the designs. Calder used soaring, outstretched, arching gestures to emphasize movement and energy in both his mobiles and stabiles.
The artist moved to Connecticut in 1933, where he sought space to create ever-larger hanging works and outdoor sculptures. Concurrently, Calder began making sets and costumes for theatrical productions by dancer Martha Graham and composer Erik Satie, work that he continued throughout his career. Through the end of the 1930's he continued to stage performances of Calder's Circus. He held exhibitions and executed commissions across Europe, finally returning again to the U.S. in 1938. In 1939, The Museum of Modern Art commissioned Calder to create the large mobile Lobster Trap and Fish Tail.
During World War II, Calder made many brightly colored gouache paintings. He also continued making sculpture, primarily using wood instead of metal due to supply shortages. He created Constellations, a series of airy three-dimensional stabiles of wire and carved wooden abstract shapes. In 1943, Calder was honored as the youngest artist ever to have a retrospective exhibition at the art world's most prestigious venue, New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 1946, Paris' Galerie Louis Carre organized another important exhibition of Calder's work, for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a landmark catalog essay.
Surrounded by his family and working in a large studio he built in Roxbury, Connecticut, from 1958 to the 1970s Calder created numerous, monumental public sculptures. While these included some mobiles, his outdoor works were more often large-scale stabiles. Among his many international commissions were those for the New York Port Authority (1957), UNESCO in Paris (1958) and, in 1969, the first public artwork funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. With his family he traveled and worked during these years in France; Beirut, Lebanon; Amedabad, India; London; and New York. He also continued creating smaller sculptures, jewelry, and set designs. In 1960, Calder began designing tapestries to be crafted by weavers in the French villages of Aubusson and Felletin. In 1962 he built a huge studio in Sache, France, near the home of friend Jean Davidson, in which he built his largest works. In the early 1970s, he even created vibrantly colored designs to cover three Braniff jets and a BMW sports car.
The Legacy of Alexander Calder
With his early Calder's Circus, Calder injected wit into serious art and introduced the concept of the artist as a performer as much as a maker of art, inspiring such artists as Claes Oldenburg and his whimsical Ray Gun Theater(1962) performances which involved artists Carolee Schneemann, Lucas Samaras, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Tom Wesselman, and Richard Artschwager; and Red Grooms' humorous performance The Burning Building(1960) and his huge mechanized Ruckus Manhattan(1975) installation sculpture.
The influence of the sweeping linear gestures in Calder's mobiles can be seen in the work of Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and the later Jackson Pollock works. The mobile introduced the elements of movement and of random chance composition into sculpture, setting the stage for experiments with the kinetic art of George Rickey and music and dance composed by chance operations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham.