Alexander Calder

Summary

Alexander Calder (Lawnton, July 22, 1898 – New York, November 11, 1976) was an American sculptor.

He is famous for inventing large kinetic art sculptures called mobile. In addition to works of sculpture, mobile and stable, Alexander Calder also devoted himself to painting, lithographs and designing toys, tapestries, carpets and jewelry.

Calder came from a family of artists. His grandfather, sculptor Alexander Milne Calder, was born in Scotland and emigrated to Philadelphia in 1868. He is the author of the colossal statue of William Penn atop the tower of Philadelphia City Hall. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was also a well-known sculptor and produced many public monuments, mostly in Philadelphia. His mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, was a professional portraitist who had studied at the Académie Julian and at the Sorbonne in Paris from about 1888 to 1893. She later moved to Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she met Alexander Stirling Calder. They were married on February 22, 1895.

A year later, in 1896, Alexander Calder’s sister, Margaret “Peggy,” was born, one of the important figures in the founding of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.In 1902, at the age of four, Calder posed nude for his father’s sculpture The man Cub, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That same year, Calder completed his first sculpture, a clay elephant. Three years later, when he was seven and his sister nine, their father contracted tuberculosis; Calder’s parents moved to a ranch in Oracle, Arizona, leaving the children in the care of family friends for a year. The children joined their parents in Arizona in late March 1906 and remained there until the fall of that year.

After Arizona, the family moved to Pasadena, California. The basement of the family home became Alexander’s first studio, and he received his first set of tools. He used leftover copper wire he could find on the street and beads from his sister’s dolls to make jewelry. On January 1, 1907, his mother took him with her to the Tournament of Roses where he could watch a horse-drawn wagon race. This event later became the model for the finale of Calder’s wire circus shows.

In 1909, in his fourth year of school, Calder created, as a Christmas gift for his parents, a dog and a duck from a sheet of brass. These sculptures were three-dimensional and the duck was kinetic, as it rocked when brushed. These works are frequently cited as examples of Calder’s early skill.

In 1910, his father Stirling Calder’s recovery was complete and the family returned to Philadelphia, where Alexander briefly attended Germantown Academy, and later to Croton-on-Hudson in New York. In Croton, during his early school years, Calder befriended the painter Everett Shinn, with whom he built a mechanical train system with gravity propulsion. Calder himself described it thus:

After Croton, the Calders moved to Spuyten Duyvil to be closer to the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, where Stirling Calder had rented a studio. While in Duyvil, Calder attended Yonkers High School. In 1912, Stirling Calder was elected to the position of director of the Sculpture Department of the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He began work on sculptures for the exposition, which was held in 1915.

During Alexander’s high school years, between 1912 and 1915, the family commuted between New York and California. In each new home, however, the parents allocated the basement as an atelier for their son. At the end of this period, Calder, when his parents returned to New York, stayed with friends in California so that he could graduate from Lowell High School in San Francisco. He graduated in 1915.

Although his parents had encouraged his creativity when he was a child, they did not wish their children to become artists, knowing that an uncertain and financially difficult career would await them. Thus, in 1915, Calder decided to study mechanical engineering after learning about the discipline from a classmate at Lowell High School, one Hyde Lewis. Stirling Calder therefore enrolled his son at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

During his freshman year at Stevens, Calder joined the football team and practiced with the team for all of the next four years, never playing a game. He also played lacrosse, for which he had the most aptitude. He was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. He excelled in mathematics. In the summer of 1916, Calder spent five weeks training at Plattsburg Civilian Military Training Camp. In 1917, he joined the Student’s Army Training Corps, Naval Section, at Stevens and was appointed battalion leader.

I learned to speak side to side with my mouth and have never quite been able to correct myself since. Calder graduated from Stevens in 1919. For several years to follow, he performed numerous engineering jobs, as a hydraulic engineer and as a draftsman for the New York Edison Company, but did not feel satisfied with any of these roles. In June 1922, Calder began working as a stoker in the boiler room of the ship H. F. Alexander. While the ship was on a voyage between San Francisco and New York, Calder saw near the coast of Guatemala the sun rise and at the same time the moon set on opposite horizons. Thus he spoke of it in his autobiography:

When the H.F. Alexander docked in San Francisco, Calder traveled to Aberdeen, Washington, where his sister lived with her husband, Kenneth Hayes. Calder found employment as a timekeeper in a sawmill. The mountainous scenery inspired him to write home to request paints and brushes. Shortly thereafter he decided to return to New York to pursue a career as an artist.

The decision to become an artist was followed by Calder’s journey to New York to enroll in the Art Students League art school in New York. As a student, he worked with the National Police Gazette where, in 1925, one of his assignments was to draw the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Calder became fascinated by the circus, a theme that would reappear in his later work.

Alternatives:The Calder Circus – Le MobilesCalder Circus – Le MobilesCircus Calder – Le Mobiles

In 1926, Calder moved to Paris where he rented a studio at 22 rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse district. At the suggestion of a Serbian toy dealer, he began making articulated toys. He never found the toy dealer again, but, under pressure from his sculptor friend José de Creeft, he presented his toys at the Salon des Humoristes. Later, Calder began to create his Circus Calder, a miniature circus built from wire, string, rubber, rags and other salvaged objects. Designed to be contained in suitcases (it eventually grew to fill five), it allowed Calder to travel and hold shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Calder devised improvised shows, recreating the acts of a real circus. Soon his Calder Circus (normally on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, became popular with the Parisian Vanguard. Some months Calder charged an entrance fee so he could pay his rent.

In 1927 Calder returned to the United States. He designed several wooden kinetic toys for children, which were mass-produced by the Gould Manufacturing Company, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The originals, like the mass-produced replicas, can be seen in the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1928 he held his first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery, at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. In 1934, he had his first solo exhibition in a museum in the United States at The Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago.

In 1929 his first solo exhibition of wire sculpture in Paris at Galerie Billiet. The painter Jules Pascin, a friend of Calder’s from his days in the cafés of Montparnasse, wrote the introduction. In June 1929, while traveling from Paris to New York, Calder met his future wife, Louisa James, great-granddaughter of writer Henry James and philosopher William James. They were married in 1931. While in Paris, Calder met and became friends with many avant-garde artists, including Joan Miró, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp. A 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio “shocked” him and convinced him to embrace the banner of abstractionism.

The Calder Circus can be seen as the beginning of Calder’s interest in both wire sculpture and kinetic art. He maintained an unwavering focus on respecting the balance of the balance of his sculptures and used them to develop the kinetic sculptures that Marcel Duchamp would definitively name “mobiles,” a French pun meaning both “mobile” and “motif.” Calder designed some of his circus characters suspended from a wire. His many experiments in developing abstract sculpture, after his visit made to Mondrian, led him to his first true kinetic sculptures, operated by means of cranks and pulleys.

By the end of 1931 he had quickly arrived at the most delicate sculptures that derived their motion from the air currents in the rooms. Thus Calder’s real mobiles were born.

Alternatives:Le StabilesThe StabilesThe Stables

At the same time, Calder was also experimenting with freestanding abstract sculptures, dubbed stabiles by Arp to differentiate them from mobiles. Calder and Louisa returned to America in 1933 to settle on a farm they purchased in Roxbury, Connecticut, where they started a family (their first daughter, Sandra, was born in 1935, and their second, Mary, in 1939). Calder continued to give shows with his Calder Circus; he also worked with Martha Graham, designing the set design for her ballets and created a moving stage machine for Eric Satie’s Socrates in 1936.

His first public commission was a pair of mobiles designed for the theater opened in 1937 in the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield (Massachusetts)During World War II, Calder attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps but his application was rejected. He therefore continued in his artistic activity: during this period, due to the shortage of metal that was difficult to obtain in wartime, he had to use wood and made new original sculptures, called constellations by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp: works consisting of wooden elements joined and held together by iron wire, which had suggestive formal affinities with the structure of the cosmos. In the spring of 1943 Calder exhibited these works in a solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, his last exhibition there; in fact, the artist shortly thereafter ceased his collaboration with Matisse and chose Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery to be represented in New York.

Calder’s career in these decades, the 1940s and 1950s, was peppered with events, beginning with his first retrospective at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1938. In 1943 the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a major retrospective of his work, curated by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp. He also exhibited at the São Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil in 1949 and at the Venice Biennale where he won the First Prize for Sculpture in 1952.

Calder was also one of 250 sculptors in the 3rd Sculpture International at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the summer of 1949. His sculpture International Mobile was the centerpiece of the exhibition and still stands (2007) where it was originally placed.

Alternatives:The monumental sculpturesMonumental sculptures

In the 1950s, Calder increasingly focused his efforts on producing monumental sculptures. Admirable examples are .125 for JFK Airport in 1957; The Spiral for UNESCO in Paris in 1958; and Trois disques for Expo 1967 in Montreal. Calder’s largest sculpture, 20.5 meters high, was El Sol Rojo, built for the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Teodelapio was Alexander Calder’s first monumental installation, created and donated to the city of Spoleto for the 1962 Festival of Two Worlds; the open-air exhibition, Sculptures in the City, conceived by Giovanni Carandente included 104 sculptures by 53 contemporary artists. The sculpture is made of black-painted steel and takes its name from a Lombard king. It stands in front of Spoleto station and has become in effect one of the symbols of the city. Standing 18 meters tall, the work is considered the world’s first stable monumental sculpture.

In fact, the other famous and grand sculptures by the same author (present with his works in cities such as Montréal, Chicago, and Mexico City) are all later. The fact that the sculpture rests directly on the asphalt of the square and acts almost as an atypical traffic circle for vehicles departing from or heading to the train station is not accidental: the author of the work, who has always been attracted to and fascinated by dynamism, imagined the Theodelapio immersed in and traversed precisely by the chaotic nature of city traffic; from this perspective, the entire square and all the vehicles passing through it participate in the dynamism of the sculpture. It remains the artist’s only monumental sculpture in Italy. Other works of his are kept at the Carandente Museum, Palazzo Collicola – Visual Arts in the same Umbrian city.

In 1964-65, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted an extensive retrospective. In 1966, Calder published his Autobiography with Images with the help of his son-in-law, Jean Davidson. Large-scale works include La grande vitesse, the first artwork intended for public placement funded by the NEA, National Endowment for the Arts. (Later Calder created a sculpture called WTC Stabile (also known as The Cockeyed Propeller and Three Wings), installed in 1971 at the entrance to the north tower of the World Trade Center. When the Battery City Park neighborhood 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 life-size DC-8-62 as a “flying canvas.” In 1975, he completed a second plane, this time a Boeing 727-227, as a tribute to the U.S. Bicentennial. Calder died on November 11, 1976, shortly after another major retrospective opened at the Whitney Museum in New York. He was working on a third plane titled Tribute to Mexico.

Two months after his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, which he himself had modestly rejected a few years earlier because it did not reflect his cultural values, by President Gerald Ford. During the awarding ceremony on January 10, 1977, family members were urged to make “a statement in favor of amnesty for Vietnam War insurgents…”

In 1987 the family established The Calder Foundation with the goal of protecting the works, executing the artist’s projects, collaborating on exhibitions and publications, and restoring Calder’s works. The U.S. copyright representative for the Calder Foundation is the Artists Rights Society. In 2003, nearly three decades after his death, an unnamed work of his sold for $5.2 million at Christie’s New York.

Sources

  1. Alexander Calder
  2. Alexander Calder