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It has great emotional effect if you understand it. Of course, if it meant anything, it would be easier to understand, but it would not be worthwhile.
- Alexander Calder, 1932
Alexander Calder was born in Pennsylvania in July 1898 to a family of artists: his mother was a painter and both his father and his grandfather were well-known sculptors. Due to his father’s health and professional commitments, he had a peripatetic childhood, living in Arizona for a time as well as on both coasts. He received his first tools as an 8-year-old in Pasadena and entertained himself by making jewellery for his sister and her dolls.
The family returned to New York in 1915 where Alexander completed a mechanical engineering degree at the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919. He took jobs with several engineering and utility firms until he decided to commit himself to painting and started classes at the Art Students’ League in 1923 where he continued to take courses until he left for Paris.
As a freelancer for the National Police Gazette, who were intrigued with his single line style, he spent 2 weeks in 1925 sketching the Ringling Brothers Circus, a seminal experience. At about the same time, he created his first wire sculpture: a rooster sundial. Working his way to Europe aboard a freighter, he arrived in Paris in the summer of 1926 and took a studio. Encouraged by friends, he exhibited a couple of small sculptures at the Salon des Indépendants.
In 1927, Calder began giving performances of his Circus to enthusiastic reviews, attracting the cream of the social and intellectual whirl in Paris, then exhibiting his animated toys at the Salon des Humoristes. That fall he returned to the States where he had his first show of wire sculptures in New York and earned his first big fee making wire sculptures for an advertising agency, which permitted him to go back to Paris where he had his first one-man show in 1929. After a showing in Berlin, he returned to New York meeting his future wife, Louisa, on board ship.
In the fall of 1930, a visit to Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio led Calder to experiment with the abstract and join the Abstraction-Création group, which included Arp, Mondrian, and Delaunay as well as others. That winter, four of his wooden sculptures were included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which he attended, marrying Louisa in January and returning to Paris.
In 1932, Calder had his first presentation of mobiles, a term coined by his friend, Marcel Duchamp. Arp thus decided that the stationary constructions should be named stabiles. At a Parisian show in the spring of 1933, he met James Johnson Sweeney, the American art critic, who became the leading proponent of his work. MoMA bought its first mobile and Calder had his first of many solo shows at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1934. He was the only American selected for an important University of Chicago show on 20th century art that spring.
Returning to the States for an exhibition, the Calders bought their first house, an 18th century farmhouse, in Roxbury, CT. Taking up permanent residency in the States, the Calders spent their summers in Roxbury and winters in New York City where their first daughter, Sandra, was born in April 1935.
By 1936, Calder’s work was included in two shows at MoMA and he was enjoying a collaboration with Martha Graham, designing ‘plastic interludes’ for her dances. In 1937, he created his first large stabile. During his summer visit to France, he met Alvar Aalto as well as Sert and Lacasa, the designers of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, who commissioned him to design a fountain of mercury – a technical and aesthetic marvel that became one of the most popular attractions at the fair.
Returning to the States, the Calders had a second daughter and, also in 1939, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned a large mobile for the stairwell of their new building. Commissions and projects continued to flow. Although classified by the Army as 1-A, Calder was never drafted and contributed to the war effort by studying civilian camouflage and doing occupational therapy at Veterans’ hospitals. As metal became scarce, he experimented with wood and wire, creating works subsequently named ‘Constellations’ by Sweeney and Duchamp.
Enjoying the company of many new and old friends among the émigré artists, Calder was also being featured in more and more museum level shows, including a major 1943 retrospective at MoMA that proved so popular, it was extended into 1944. Shortly after the death of his father in 1945, Calder, at the behest of an architect friend who wanted tiny mobiles for a building maquette, began making miniatures that could be disassembled and mailed.
By his 50th birthday, Calder was enjoying wide international success from Rio to Stockholm. While best known for his sculpture, he also illustrated books, created tapestries, ballets, and jewellery – all to great acclaim. He won the first prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1952, was awarded honorary doctorates from Harvard (1966) and Stevens Institute of Technology (on the 50th anniversary of his own graduation in engineering), and was made a Commander of the Légion d’Honneur in France in 1968. The subject of three films, several books and innumerable major retrospectives, Calder continued to create important commissions literally until the day he died on November 11, 1976.
As a life-long pacifist and protester against the Vietnam War, he politely refused the Medal of Freedom from President Ford in October 1976, the Medal was awarded posthumously in January 1977.