Alexander Calder 1898 - 1976
The circus. A place of comedy, amazement, space, movement and air that fascinated the artist Alexander Calder. This interest of his would translate into his entire artistic career as he leaves his degree behind and decides to use his life to create performative, playful and aerodynamic art.
American born Calder came from a family of artists and was brought up in Pennsylvania. His father was a well-known sculptor and his mother and grandfather were successful painters. Calder did not want to become an artist. In his early 20s he took a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey, where he honed his dextrous skills and became familiar with materials and techniques that would later become fundamental in his works.
After completing his degree, Calder did paint and create artworks but also worked on a ship in the Central Americas, where he witnessed the swaying of the ocean, the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. It is argued that it was these scenes and experiences that inspired his paintings and famous mobiles. Just like the seascape and the cosmos and even the circus, his sculptures represent movement, the natural world and vastness. The ship was docked, and an inspired Calder chose to enrol at the Arts Students League in New York City in 1923.
'Above all, art should be fun'
By 1926 he had chosen to properly pursue his art and travelled to Paris where, as one of very few Americans, he would meet the melting-pot of European modern artists including, close friend for years to come, Joan Miro. We can imagine he stood out from the crowd, fellow artist Fernand Léger noted that while artists like “Satie and Duchamp are 100 percent French,” Calder “is 100 percent American.” After spending a few years settling into Parisian life, Calder’s love for the circus came to artistic fruition, in the form of a miniature work, Cirque Calder, 1931. The story goes that he would carry the model in a suitcase and perform the ‘circus’ for his artist friends and the public, too. Therefore, though light-hearted at the time, it could be interpreted that Calder actually created a form of performance art that was not officially born for another 40 years.
He was also preoccupied with sketching, but not like any other artist with pencil or charcoal. Calder “sketched”, as he called it, with wire and pliers. He would create the shapes in the air which consequently coined the art term, “drawing in space” and labelled Calder “The Wire King”. At this time Calder also made the most important works of his, the kinetic ‘Mobiles’. The name given to them by innovator artist and friend, Marcel Duchamp. It is said that the inspiration for these works was sparked during a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930. Calder asked the artist what he thought of making his static, rectangular shapes oscillate. To which Mondrian replied, “my works are fast enough already”. But Calder rejected this opinion. He changed the rectangular concept, making his shapes more organic by resembling leaves and planets. Originally, he thought these sculptures would have to be motorised in order for them to move. However, Calder realised that the air and gravity was strong enough to make the Mobiles sway and turn before the viewers eyes. This created an innocent magic for all that witnessed these seemingly live sculptures. It was this innovation in modern art that defined kinetic art yet rang true to the rules of abstraction.
After marrying Louisa James, daughter of author Henry James, and having a child, by 1933 they had returned to New York. By this time, he was a widely recognised artist in Europe and was entering a big break in his career. by the end of the 40s and beyond, Calder had branched out focusing on many different art forms. He created ‘stabiles’, named by Jean Arp, which were colossal scale, stationary sculptures in bold colours, “I wanted to paint everything red” confessed Calder. In the years to come, Calder would become the youngest artist ever to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His career reached new heights and he used this to fuel many other artistic ventures. He made paintings, prints, lithographs and even jewellery.
By the 50s and 60s he was solidified as a well-known and beloved artist. However, as the contemporary movement increasingly eclipsed the modern artists his work was, of a sudden, deemed too playful. In 1976 a major retrospective of his work was established yet within weeks of the opening he passed away, leaving over 22,000 works behind to mark a truly significant artistic career.
You can visit a foundation celebrating the life and work of Alexander Calder in New York City.