Alexander Calder (22 July 1898 – 11 November 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, toys and tapestry and designed carpets.
Born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 1898, Calder came from a family of artists. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a well-known sculptor who created many public installations, a majority of them located in Philadelphia. Calder’s grandfather, sculptor Alexander Milne Calder, was born in Scotland and immigrated to Philadelphia in 1868. Calder’s mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, was a professional portrait painter who studied at the Académie Julian and the Sorbonne in Paris from around 1888 until 1893. She then moved to Philadelphia where she met Alexander Stirling Calder while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Calder’s parents were married on 22 February 1895. His older sister, Margaret “Peggy” Calder, was born in 1896. Her married name was Margaret Calder Hayes, and she was instrumental in the development of the UC Berkeley Art Museum.
In 1902, at the age of four, Calder posed nude for his father’s sculpture The Man Cub that is now located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In that same year, he completed his earliest sculpture, a clay elephant.
Three years later, when Calder was seven and his sister was nine, Stirling Calder contracted tuberculosis and Calder’s parents moved to a ranch in Oracle, Arizona, leaving the children in the care of family friends for a year. The children were reunited with their parents in late March, 1906 and stayed at the ranch in Arizona until fall of the same year.
After Arizona, the Calder family moved to Pasadena, California. The windowed cellar of the family home became Calder’s first studio and he received his first set of tools. He used scraps of copper wire that he found in the streets to make jewelry and beads for his sister’s dolls. On January 1, 1907, Calder’s mother took him to the Tournament of Roses and he observed a four-horse-chariot race. This style of event later became the finale of Calder’s wire circus shows.
In 1909, when Calder was in the fourth grade, he sculpted a dog and a duck out of sheet brass as Christmas gifts for his parents. The sculptures were three dimensional and the duck was kinetic because it rocked when gently tapped. These sculptures are frequently cited as early examples of Calder’s skill.
In 1910, Stirling Calder’s rehabilitation was complete and the Calder family moved back to Philadelphia, where he briefly attended the Germantown Academy, and then to Croton-on-Hudson in New York. In Croton, during his early high school years, Calder was befriended by the painter Everett Shinn with whom he built a gravity powered system of mechanical trains. As Calder described:
After Croton, the Calders moved to Spuyten Duyvil to be closer to the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, where Stirling Calder rented a studio. While living in Spuyten Duyvil, Calder attended Yonkers High.
In 1912, Stirling Calder was appointed acting chief of the Department of Sculpture of the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He began work on sculptures for the exposition that was held in 1915. During Alexander Calder’s high school years between 1912 and 1915, the Calder family moved back and forth between New York and California. In each new location Calder’s parents reserved cellar space as a studio for their son. Toward the end of this period, Calder stayed with friends in California while his parents moved back to New York so that he could graduate from Lowell High School in San Francisco. Calder graduated in the class of 1915.
Although Calder’s parents encouraged his creativity as a child, they discouraged their children from becoming artists, knowing that it was an uncertain and financially difficult career. In 1915, Calder decided to study mechanical engineering after learning about the discipline from a classmate at Lowell High School named Hyde Lewis. Stirling Calder arranged for his son's enrollment at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Calder joined the football team during his freshman year at Stevens and practiced with the team all four years, but he never played in a game. He also played lacrosse, at which he was more successful. He was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. He excelled in the subject of mathematics.
In the summer of 1916, Calder spent five weeks training at the Plattsburg Civilian Military Training Camp. In 1917, he joined the Student’s Army Training Corps, Naval Section, at Stevens and was made guide of the battalion.
Calder received a degree from Stevens in 1919. For the next several years, he worked a variety of engineering jobs, including working as a hydraulics engineer and a draughtsman for the New York Edison Company, but he was not 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 City, Calder worked on deck of the Guatemalan Coast and witnessed both the sun rising and the moon setting on opposite horizons. As he described in his autobiography:
The H.F. Alexander docked in San Francisco and Calder traveled up to Aberdeen, Washington where his sister lived with her husband, Kenneth Hayes. Calder took a job as a timekeeper at a logging camp. The mountain scenery inspired him to write home to request paints and brushes. Shortly after this, Calder decided to move back to New York to pursue a career as an artist.
In 1926, Calder moved to Paris. He established a studio at 22 rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse Quarter. At the suggestion of a Serbian toy merchant, he began to create toys with articulation. He never found the toy merchant again, but, at the urging of fellow sculptor Jose de Creeft, he submitted his toys to the Salon des Humoristes. Later that fall, Calder began to create his Cirque Calder, a miniature circus fashioned from wire, string, rubber, cloth, and other found objects. Designed to fit into suitcases (it eventually grew to fill five), Calder could travel with his circus and hold performances on both sides of the Atlantic. He gave elaborately improvised shows, recreating the performance of a real circus. Soon, his "Cirque Calder" (usually on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but currently under renovation until Oct. 2008) became popular with the Parisian avant-garde. Some months Calder would charge an entrance fee to pay his rent. In 1927, Calder returned to the United States. He designed several kinetic wooden push and pull toys for children, which he had mass-produced by the Gould Manufacturing Company, in Oshkosh, WI. His originals, as well as playable replicas, are on display in the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
In 1928, Calder held his first solo show at a commercial gallery at the Weyhe Gallery in New York City. In 1934, he had his first solo museum exhibition in the United States at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago.
While 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.
The Cirque Calder can be seen as the start of Calder's interest in both wire sculpture and kinetic art. He maintained a sharp eye with respect to the engineering balance of the sculptures and utilized these to develop the kinetic sculptures Duchamp would ultimately dub as "mobiles". 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, manipulated by 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. From this, Calder's true "mobiles" were born. At 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 worked with Martha Graham, designing stage sets for her ballets and created a moving stage construction to accompany Eric Satie's Socrate in 1936.
Calder's first retrospective was held in 1938 at George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1943, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a well-received Calder retrospective, curated by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp.
Calder was one of 250 sculptors who exhibited in the 3rd Sculpture International held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the summer of 1949. His mobile, International Mobile was the centerpiece of the exhibition and hangs in 2006 where it was placed in 1949.
In the 1950s, Calder increasingly concentrated his efforts on producing monumental sculptures. Notable examples are ".125" for JFK Airport in 1957, "La Spirale" for UNESCO in Paris 1958 and "L'Homme" ("Man") for Expo '67 in Montreal. 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.
In June 1969, Calder attended the dedication of his monumental stabile “La Grande Vitesse” located in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. This sculpture is notable for being the first public work of art in the United States to be funded with federal monies; acquired with funds granted from the then new National Endowment for the Arts under its “Art for Public Places” program.
Calder created a sculpture called WTC Stabile (also known as The Cockeyed Propeller and Three Wings), which in 1971 was installed at the entrance of the World Trade Center's North Tower. When Battery Park City opened, the sculpture was moved to Vesey and Church Streets. It stood in front of 7 World Trade Center when it was destroyed on September 11, 2001.
In 1973, Calder was commissioned by Braniff International Airways to paint a full-size DC-8-62 as a "flying canvas", In 1975, Calder completed a second plane, this time a Boeing 727-227, as a tribute to the U.S. Bicentennial.
Calder died on 11 November 1976, shortly following the opening of another major retrospective show at the Whitney Museum in New York. Calder had been working on a third plane, entitled Tribute to Mexico, when he died.
Two months after his death, Calder was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, by President Gerald Ford. However, representatives of the Calder family boycotted the 10 January 1977 ceremony "to make a statement favoring amnesty for Vietnam War draft resisters"..
In 1987, The Calder Foundation was founded by Calder's family. The Foundation not only serves as his official Estate, but also "runs its own programs, collaborates on exhibitions and publications, and gives advice on matters such as the history, authenticity, and restoration of works by Calder. The U.S. copyright representative for the Calder Foundation is the Artists Rights Society.
In 2003, nearly 30 years after his death, an untitled work of his sold for $5.2 million at Christie's New York.
"How can art be realized?
Out of volumes, motion, spaces bounded by the great space, the universe.
Out of different masses, tight, heavy, middling--indicated by variations of size or color--directional line--vectors which represent speeds, velocities, accelerations, forces, etc. . . .--these directions making between them meaningful angles, and senses, together defining one big conclusion or many.
Spaces, volumes, suggested by the smallest means in contrast to their mass, or even including them, juxtaposed, pierced by vectors, crossed by speeds.
Nothing at all of this is fixed.
Each element able to move, to stir, to oscillate, to come and go in its relationships with the other elements in its universe.
It must not be just a fleeting moment but a physical bond between the varying events in life.
Abstractions that are like nothing in life except in their manner of reacting.