Alexander Calder

August 22, 1898 – November 11, 1976

Alexander Calder was an American sculptor known as the originator of the mobile, a type of moving sculpture made with delicately balanced or suspended shapes that move in response to touch or air currents. Calder’s monumental stationary sculptures are called stabiles. He also produced wire figures, which are like drawings made in space, and notably a miniature circus work that was performed by the artist.

Calder’s parents did not want him to suffer the life of an artist, so he decided to study mechanical engineering. An intuitive engineer since childhood, Calder did not even know what mechanical engineering was. “I was not very sure what this term meant, but I thought I’d better adopt it,” he later wrote in his autobiography. He enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1915. When asked why he decided to study mechanical engineering instead of art Calder said, “I wanted to be an engineer because some guy I rather liked was a mechanical engineer, that’s all.” At Stevens, Calder was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and excelled in mathematics. He was well-liked and the class yearbook contained the following description, “Sandy is evidently always happy, or perhaps up to some joke, for his face is always wrapped up in that same mischievous, juvenile grin. This is certainly the index to the man’s character in this case, for he is one of the best natured fellows there is.”

In the summer of 1916, Calder spent five weeks training at the Plattsburg Civilian Military Training Camp. In 1918, 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 held a variety of jobs, including working as a hydraulic engineer and a draughtsman for the New York Edison Company. In June 1922, Calder found work as a mechanic on the passenger ship H. F. Alexander. While the ship sailed from San Francisco to New York City, Calder slept on deck and awoke one early morning off the Guatemalan Coast and witnessed both the sun rising and the full moon setting on opposite horizons. He described in his autobiography, “It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch—a coil of rope—I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other.”

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.
Red Mobile, 1956, Painted sheet metal and metal rods, a signature work by Calder – Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Calder moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League, studying briefly with Thomas Hart Benton, George Luks, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and John Sloan. While a student, he worked for the National Police Gazette where, in 1925, one of his assignments was sketching the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Calder became fascinated with the action of the circus, a theme that would reappear in his later work.

In 1926, Calder moved to Paris, enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and established a studio at 22 rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse Quarter. In June 1929, while traveling by boat from Paris to New York, Calder met his future wife, Louisa James (1905-1996), grandniece of author Henry James and philosopher William James. They married in 1931. While in Paris, Calder met and became friends with a number of avant-garde artists, including Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp. 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). In 1955 Alexander and Louisa Calder travelled around in India for three months, where Calder produced nine sculptures as well as some jewelry.

In 1963, Calder settled into his new workshop, which overlooked the valley of the Lower Chevrière to Saché in Indre-et-Loire (France). He donated to the town a sculpture, which since 1974 has been situated in the town square. Throughout his artistic career, Calder named many of his works in French, regardless of where they were destined for eventual display.

In 1966, Calder published his Autobiography with Pictures with the help of his son-in-law, Jean Davidson.

Calder died unexpectedly on November 11, 1976, shortly after the opening of a major retrospective show at the Whitney Museum in New York.

PARTIAL WORKS

Dog (1909), folded brass sheet; this was made as a present for Calder’s parents
The Flying Trapeze (1925), oil on canvas, 36 x 42 in.
Elephant (c. 1928), wire and wood, 11½ x 5¾ x 29.2 in.
Hi! (ca. 1928), brass wire, painted wood base, Honolulu Museum of Art
Aztec Josephine Baker (1930), wire, 53″ x 10″ x 9″. A representation of Josephine Baker, the exuberant lead dancer from La revue nègre at the Folies Bergère.
Untitled (1931), wire, wood and motor; one of the first kinetic mobiles
Small Feathers (1931), wire, wood and paint; first true mobile, although designed to stand on a desktop
Cône d’ébène (1933), ebony, metal bar and wire; early suspended mobile (first was made in 1932)
Object with Yellow Background (1936), Painted wood, metal, string, Honolulu Museum of Art
Mercury Fountain (1937), sheet metal and liquid mercury metal
Devil Fish (1937), sheet metal, bolts and paint; first piece made from a model
1939 New York World’s Fair (maquette) (1938), sheet metal, wire, wood, string and paint
Necklace (c. 1938), brass wire, glass and mirror
Sphere Pierced by Cylinders (1939), wire and paint; the first of many floor standing, life size “stabiles” (predating Anthony Caro’s “plinthless” sculptures by two decades)
Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939), sheet metal, wire and paint (suspended mobile); design for the stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Black Beast (1940), sheet metal, bolts and paint (freestanding plinthless stabile)
S-Shaped Vine (1946), sheet metal, wire and paint (suspended mobile)
Sword Plant (1947) sheet metal, wire and paint (standing mobile)
Snow Flurry (1948), sheet metal, wire and paint (suspended mobile)
Stillman House Mural (1952), (pool mural)
.125 (1957), steel plate, rods and paint
Spirale (1958), steel plate, rod and paint, 360″ high; public monumental mobile for Maison de l’UNESCO, Paris

Guillotine pour huit (Guillotine for eight), (1962), at the LaM, Villeneuve d’Ascq, France
Teodelapio (1962), steel plate and paint, monumental stabile, Spoleto, Italy
La Grande voile (1966), a 33-ton metal sculpture composed of five intersecting forms, four planes, and one curve. It stands 40 feet (12 m) tall, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Man (1967) stainless steel plate, bolts and paint, 65′ x 83′ x 53′, monumental stabile, Montreal Canada
Gwenfritz (1968) National Museum of American History
La Grande vitesse, (1969), steel plate, bolts and paint, 43′ x 55′ x 25′, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Bent Propeller, [destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001] 1970-71, 7 World Trade Center, New York City
Peau Rouge Indiana (Red Skin Indiana) (1970), steel plate, bolts and paint, 40′ x 32′ x 33′, Bloomington, Indiana
Reims, Croix du Sud (Reims, Cross of the South) (1970), at the LaM, Villeneuve d’Ascq, France
Eagle (1971), steel plate, bolts and paint, 38’9″ x 32’8″ x 32’8″, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, Washington
White and Red Boomerang (1971), Painted metal, wire, Honolulu Museum of Art
Stegosaurus (1973), steel plate, bolts and paint, 50′ tall, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
Cheval Rouge (Red Horse) (1974), red painted sheet metal, at the National Gallery, Washington DC
Flamingo (1974), red painted steel, at the Federal Plaza, Chicago, Illinois
Universe (1974), motorized “wallmobile,” black, red, yellow, and blue painted steel, Willis Tower, Chicago, Illinois
The Red Feather (1975), black and red painted steel, 11′ x 6’3″ x 11’2″, The Kentucky Center
Flying Dragon (1975), red painted steel, believed to be the final stabile personally created by Alexander Calder, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Untitled (1976), aluminum honeycomb, tubing and paint, 358½ x 912″, National Gallery of Art Washington DC
L’Araignée Rouge (The Red Spider) (1976), 15m tall, monumental sculpture, Paris La Défense France
Mountains and Clouds (1976), painted aluminum and steel, 612 inches x 900 inches, Hart Senate Office Building
Calder’s set for Socrate (1976), Pivotal stage sets presented in New York on the first anniversary of Calder’s death