Alexander Calder aka Sandy Calder was born in 1898 in Lantown, Pennsylvania. Born into artist parents, his father was a sculptor and his mother a painter. Because his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, received many public commissions, the family traversed the country throughout Calder’s childhood. Calder was encouraged to create, and from childhood, he always had his own workshop wherever the family lived. During Christmas 1909, Calder presented his parents with two of his first sculptures, a tiny dog and duck cut from a brass sheet and bent into formation.
Despite his talents, Calder did not originally set out to become an artist. He enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology after high school and graduated in 1919 with an engineering degree. Calder worked for several years after graduation at various jobs, including a hydraulics and automotive engineer, timekeeper in a logging camp and fireman in a ship’s boiler room. While serving as a fireman on a ship from New York bound for San Francisco, Calder awoke on the deck to see both a brilliant sunrise and a scintillating full moon; each was visible on opposite horizons (the ship then lay off the Guatemalan coast). The experience made a lasting impression on Calder. He would refer to it throughout his life.
Calder committed to becoming an artist shortly thereafter and, in 1923, he moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League. He also took a job illustrating for the National Police Gazette and sketched circus scenes for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus became a lifelong interest of Calder’s and, after moving to Paris in 1926, he created his Cirque Calder, a complex and unique body of work. The assemblage included diminutive performers, animals and props. Fashioned from wire, leather, cloth and other found materials, Cirque Calder was designed to be manipulated manually by Calder. Every piece was small enough to be packed into a large trunk, enabling the artist to carry it with him and hold performances anywhere. Its first performance was held in Paris for an audience of friends and peers and soon Calder was presenting the circus in both Paris and New York to much success.
Calder found he enjoyed working with wire and soon began to sculpt portraits of his friends and public figures of the day in metal wire. Word traveled about the inventive artist, and in 1928, Calder was given his first solo gallery exhibition at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. Others exhibitions soon followed in New York, Paris and Berlin. As a result, Calder spent much time crossing the ocean by boat. He met Louisa James (a grandniece of writer Henry James) on one of these steamer journeys and the two were married in January 1931. He also became friendly with many prominent artists and intellectuals of the early twentieth century including: Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp. In October 1930, Calder visited the studio of Piet Mondrian in Paris and was deeply impressed by a wall of colored paper rectangles that Mondrian continually repositioned for compositional experiments. He recalled later in life that this experience “shocked” him towards total abstraction. For three weeks following this visit, he created solely abstract paintings, only to discover that he did indeed prefer sculpture to painting. Soon after, he was invited to join Abstraction-Création, an influential group of artists (including Arp, Mondrian and Hélion).
In the fall of 1931, a significant turning point in Calder’s artistic career occurred when he created his first truly kinetic sculpture and gave form to an entirely new type of art. The first of these objects moved by systems of cranks and motors and were dubbed “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp. In French, mobile refers to both “motion” and “motive.” Calder soon abandoned the mechanical aspects of these works when he realized he could fashion mobiles that would operate on their own with the air’s currents. Jean Arp, in order to differentiate Calder’s non-kinetic works from his kinetic works, named Calder’s stationary objects “stabiles.”
In 1933, Calder and Louisa left France and returned to the United States, where they purchased an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut. Calder converted an icehouse attached to the main house into a studio. Their first daughter, Sandra, was born in 1935 and a second daughter, Mary, followed in 1939. He also began his association with the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York with his first exhibition in 1934. James Johnson Sweeney, who had become a close friend, wrote the catalogue’s preface. Calder also constructed sets for ballets by both Martha Graham and Eric Satie during the 1930’s, and continued to give Cirque Calder performances.
Calder’s earliest attempts at large, outdoor sculptures were also constructed in this decade. In 1937, Calder created his first large bolted stabile fashioned entirely from sheet metal, which he entitled “Devil Fish.” The work was exhibited in a Pierre Matisse Gallery show, Stabiles and Mobiles. Soon after, Calder received commissions from the Mercury Fountain for the Spanish Pavilion at the Parisian World.
When the United States entered World War II, Calder applied for entry to the Marine Corps, but was ultimately rejected. Since metal was in short supply during the war years, Calder turned to wood as a sculptural medium. Working in wood resulted in yet another original form of sculpture works called “constellations.”
The 1940’s-1950’s were a remarkably productive period for Calder. In 1939, he launched the first retrospective of his work at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. A second major retrospective was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just a few years later.
In 1945, Calder made a series of small-scale works made from scraps of metal trimmed while making larger pieces. While visiting Calder’s studio, Duchamp was intrigued by these small works. Inspired by the idea that the works could be easily dismantled, mailed to Europe and reassembled for an exhibition, he planned a Calder show at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris. This important show was held the following year and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his famous essay on Calder’s mobiles for the exhibition catalogue.
Calder concentrated his efforts primarily on large-scale commissioned works in his later years. As the range and breadth of his various projects and commissions indicate, Calder’s artistic talents were renowned worldwide.
Calder passed away at the age of 78 on November 11th, 1976.