Alexander Calder is a sculptor known primarily for pioneering mobile sculptures. He was born to painter Nannette Calder and sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder in 1898. In his early years in Lawton, Pennsylvania, his parents encouraged him to create toys, jewelry, games and art for his family, and he was even provided with his own small studio. His earliest recorded artwork is Duck, a small brass duck he gave to his parents for Christmas. His parents discouraged him from becoming an artist, however, and in 1919 he achieved his degree in mechanical engineering. His mobile art is undoubtedly influenced by his knowledge of mechanics, and he was also influenced by his work as a drafter and engineer. Against his parents’ earlier wishes, he decided eventually to become a full-time artist, and in 1923 he moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. He worked as a sketch artist afterwards, and was heavily influenced by his work drawing the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Calders’ earliest moving works were the miniature Cirque Calder, a flea circus he created and incorporated into an entire stage act in Paris. Here you can see how he drew both from his mechanical engineering education and his fascination with the circus. The circus and its performers were made from wood, wire, rubber and cloth.
Calder began making sculptures exclusively from wire in 1926, the earliest example being a depiction of Josephine Baker. These works appear almost to be three dimensional sketches. His first wire sculptures were portraiture, and he later began to depict historical figures and literary scenes, such as Hercules and the Lion. These sculptures were dynamic, and their slight construction allowed for some movement, but they were not designed to exploit movement the way his later mobiles would be. They successfully suggested motion, but were not especially designed to move.
The 1930’s saw Calders’ sculptures becoming more abstract, and he traded some of his representative detail for a focus on the dynamism of the forms. He strayed from his literal translations of scenes and people and began contemplating the use of space and form itself. Here it’s important to note a visit he made to De Stijl painter Piet Mondrian, whose abstract works had a great effect on Calder. Calder even spent a month as a painter, and although he shortly returned to sculpture, a sharp break can be seen in his works before and after the visit. Works like the planetary Croisiere don’t attempt to depict any specific object; he uses the balls and wire to express movement and the potential energy of the shapes. Other sculpture of this period, like Feathers and Object with Red Ball also manage to exploit the empty space created by the slight objects and infuse them with energy and motion. The objects could be moved to alter the composition. In 1931, the term Mobile was coined by Marcel Duchamp to describe Calders’ motorized works. He soon began to use white or colored panels as a backdrop to his sculptures, and began to use materials like sheet metal that had more visual mass. These sculptures, which were more like moving paintings, were the last of his motorized works.
Calder created his first “Stabile”, The Whale, in 1937. The scale, and sometimes mass, of his works had begun to increase. He continued to work on his mobiles, and at this time began to intentionally make use of the airflow to move his sculptures. Sculptures like The Big Ear and Black Beast were larger and more staid and angular than his early work. The also foreshadowed his later monumental public works. His mobiles also increased in size, and works like 1942’s Untitled and 1947’s 1 Red, 4 Black plus X White are probably in Calders’ most commonly recognizable style. They are large, flowing mobiles that form a landscape out of the negative space they create. Little Parasite, 1947, is a combination of his bulkier Stabiles and some light, seemingly unsupported wire elements. Calder creates a variation if these three types of sculpture for most of the rest of his life, but also begins to work on monumental public works.
.125, at 45 feet across, was a massive mobile created for the New York Port Authority. He is probably most famous during the late fifties and sixties for his massive stabiles like Teodelapio, Man, and La grande vitesse. These resemble his earlier stabiles, but the monumental scale and visible construction give them a more architectural feel. Interestingly, the massive objects still manage to create a sense of movement, and even whimsy. Calder changed his methods and materials over the years, but never failed to express energy and movement regardless of scale, shape, or materials.
Red and Blue and Black on White, 1969
John D Rockefeller,1927
Portrait of Jimmy Durante, 1926
Marter, Joan. Alexander Calder. Cambridge University Press, 1991
Davidson, Jean. Calder: an Autobiography with pictures. Penguin Press, 1966
Arnason, H Harvard. Calder. The Viking Press, 1971
Rower, Alexander. Calder Sculpture. Universe Publishing, 1998.