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Alexander Calder (1898 - 1976)


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Alexander Calder (/ˈkɔːldər/; August 22, 1898 – November 11, 1976) 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.

Alexander "Sandy" Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania. His actual birthday, however, remains a source of much confusion. According to Calder's mother, Nanette (née Lederer), Calder was born on August 22, yet his birth certificate at Philadelphia City Hall, based on a hand-written ledger, stated July 22. When Calder's family learned about the birth certificate, they reasserted with certainty that city officials had made a mistake.

Calder's grandfather, sculptor Alexander Milne Calder, was born in Scotland, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1868, and is best known for the colossal statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia City Hall's tower. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a well-known sculptor who created many public installations, a majority of them in nearby Philadelphia. Calder's mother was a professional portrait artist, who had studied at the Académie Julian and the Sorbonne in Paris from around 1888 until 1893. She moved to Philadelphia where she met Stirling Calder while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Calder's parents married on February 22, 1895; his sister, Mrs. Margaret Calder Hayes, was instrumental in the development of the UC Berkeley Art Museum.

In 1902, Calder posed nude for his father’s sculpture The Man Cub, a cast of which is now located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That same year he also completed his earliest sculpture, a clay elephant. Three years later, Stirling Calder contracted tuberculosis, and Calder's parents moved to a ranch in Oracle, Arizona, leaving the children in the care of family friends for a year. The children were reunited with their parents in late March 1906 and stayed at the ranch in Arizona until fall of the same year.

After Arizona, the Calder family moved to Pasadena, California. The windowed cellar of the family home became Calder's first studio and he received his first set of tools. He used scraps of copper wire that he found in the street to make jewelry for his sister's dolls. On January 1, 1907, Nanette Calder took her son to theTournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, where he observed a four-horse-chariot race. This style of event later became the finale of Calder's miniature circus performances.

In the fall of 1909, the Calder family moved back to Philadelphia, where Calder briefly attended Germantown Academy, then moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York. That Christmas, he sculpted a dog and a duck out of sheet brass as gifts for his parents. The sculptures are three-dimensional and the duck is kinetic because it rocks when gently tapped. In Croton, during his early high school years, Calder was befriended by his father's painter friend Everett Shinn with whom he built a gravity powered system of mechanical trains. Calder described it, "We ran the train on wooden rails held by spikes; a chunk of iron racing down the incline speeded [sic] the cars. We even lit up some cars with candle lights". After Croton, the Calders moved to Spuyten Duyvil to be closer to New York City, where Stirling Calder rented a studio. While living in Spuyten Duyvil, Calder attended high school in nearby Yonkers. In 1912, Stirling Calder was appointed acting chief of the Department of Sculpture of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California, and began work on sculptures for the exposition that was held in 1915.

During Calder's high school years (1912–1915), the family moved back and forth between New York and California. In each new location, Calder's parents reserved cellar space as a studio for their son. Toward the end of this period, Calder stayed with friends in California while his parents moved back to New York, so that he could graduate from Lowell High School in San Francisco. Calder graduated with the class of 1915.

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 draughtsmanfor 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.

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.

In 1926, at the suggestion of a Serbian toy merchant in Paris, Calder began to make mechanical toys. At the urging of fellow sculptor Jose de Creeft, he submitted them to the Salon des Humoristes. Calder began to create his Cirque Calder, a miniature circus fashioned from wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork, and other found objects. Designed to be transportable (it eventually grew to fill five large suitcases), the circus was presented on both sides of the Atlantic. Soon, his Cirque Calder (on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art at present) became popular with the Parisian avant-garde. He also invented wire sculpture, or "drawing in space," and in 1929 he had his first solo show of these sculptures in Paris at Galerie Billiet. Hi! (Two Acrobats) in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art is an early example of the artist's wire sculpture. The painter Jules Pascin, a friend of Calder's from the cafes of Montparnasse, wrote the preface to the catalog. A visit to Piet Mondrian's studio in 1930, where he was impressed by the environment-as-installation, "shocked" him into fully embracing abstract art, toward which he had already been tending.

It was the mixture of his experiments to develop purely abstract sculpture following his visit with Mondrian that led to his first truly kinetic sculptures, manipulated by means of cranks and motors, that would become his signature artworks. Calder’s kinetic sculptures are regarded as being amongst the earliest manifestations of an art that consciously departed from the traditional notion of the art work as a static object and integrated the ideas of gesture and immateriality as aesthetic factors.

Dating from 1931, Calder’s sculptures of discrete movable parts powered by motors were christened “mobiles” byMarcel Duchamp, a French pun meaning both "motion" and "motive." By 1932, he moved on to hanging sculptures which derived their motion from touch or the air currents in the room. They were followed in 1934 by outdoor pieces which were set in motion by the open air. At the same time, Calder was also experimenting with self-supporting, static, abstract sculptures, dubbed "stabiles" by Jean Arp in 1932 to differentiate them from mobiles. In 1935-1936 he produced a number of works made largely of carved wood. At Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (1937) the Spanish pavilion included Alexander Calder's sculptureMercury Fountain.

During World War II, Calder attempted to join the Marines as a camofleur, but was rejected. He continued to sculpt, adapting to a scarcity of aluminum during the war by returning to carved wood in a new open form of sculpture called "constellations." Once the war was over, Calder began to cut shapes from sheet metal into evocative forms and would hand-paint them in his characteristically pure hues of black, red, blue, and white. Calder created a small group of works from around this period with a hanging base-plate, for example Lily of Force(1945), Baby Flat Top (1946), and Red is Dominant (1947). Calder also set about creating new works such asSeven Horizontal Discs (1946), which, like Lily of Force (1945) and Baby Flat Top (1946), he was able to dismantle and send by mail despite the stringent size restrictions imposed by the postal service at the time. His 1946 show at the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris, composed mainly of hanging and standing mobiles, made a huge impact, as did the essay for the catalogue written, at the artist's invitation, by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1951, Calder devised a new kind of sculpture, related structurally to his constellations. These "towers," affixed to the wall with a nail, consist of wire struts and beams that jut out from the wall, with moving objects suspended from their armatures.

While not denying Calder's power as a sculptor, an alternate view of the history of twentieth-century art cites Calder's turning away in the early 1930s from his motor-powered works in favor of the wind-driven mobile as marking a decisive moment in Modernism's abandonment of its earlier commitment to the machine as a critical and potentially expressive new element in human affairs – and an abandonment, in effect, of its larger goal of a rapprochement with science and engineering – and this with unfortunate, if not to say disastrous, long-term implications for contemporary art:

The larger myth of the mobile is that it represents the triumph of kinetic sculpture, when in reality the mobile was as different as one could imagine from the original vision: passive rather than active; not at all mechanical; and random rather than directed in its motion. Indeed, the mobile drew upon none of the incredible technical resources of the twentieth century, the appropriation of which had of course been the principal inspiration of the original kineticists.

As a renowned artist, part of Calder's repertoire includes pivotal stage sets for more than a dozen theatrical productions: NucléaPanoramaHorizonSocrateWork in Progress. Calder would describe some of his stage sets as dancers performing a choreography due to their rhythmic movement. The production of the Socrateset in 1936 became a decisive moment in Calder's artistic development. Calder described it in these terms: «it serves as an indication of a good deal of my subsequent work».

In the 1950s, Calder increasingly concentrated his efforts on producing monumental sculptures (his self-described period of "agrandissements"). Notable examples are .125 for JFK Airport in 1957, Spirale for UNESCO in Paris 1958 and Trois disques, commissioned for Expo 67 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Calder's largest sculpture at 25.7 meters high was El Sol Rojo, constructed outside the Aztec Stadium for the 1968 Summer Olympics "Cultural Olympiad" events in Mexico City.

In 1934, Calder made his first outdoor works in his Roxbury, Connecticut studio, using the same techniques and materials as his smaller works. Exhibited outside, Calder's initial standing mobiles moved elegantly in the breeze, bobbing and swirling in natural, spontaneous rhythms. In fact, the first few outdoor works were too delicate for strong winds, which forced Calder to rethink his fabrication process.

In 1936, he responded to the problem, changing his working methods. He began to create smaller scale maquettes that he then enlarged to monumental size. The small metal maquette, the first step in the production of a monumental sculpture, was already for Calder a sculpture in its own right. The larger works were made under his direction, using the classic enlargement techniques used in different ways by traditional sculptors, including his father and grandfather. Calder began to draw his designs on brown craft paper, which he enlarged using a grid. His large-scale works were created according to his exact specifications, while also allowing him the liberty to adjust or correct a shape or line if necessary.

He made most of his monumental stabiles and mobiles after 1962 at Etablissements Biémont in Tours, France. Calder would create a model of his work, the engineering department would scale it up to final size under Calder's direction, and then technicians would complete the actual metalwork — all under Calder's watchful eye. Stabiles were made in steel plate, then painted in black or in colors. An exception was Trois disques, in stainless steel at 24 meters tall, which was commissioned byInternational Nickel Company of Canada.

In 1958, Calder asked Jean Prouvé to construct the steel base of Spirale in France, a monumental mobile for the UNESCO site in Paris, while the top was fabricated in Connecticut. In June 1969, Calder attended the dedication of his monumental stabile La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This sculpture is notable for being the first civic sculpture in the United States to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Calder created a sculpture called Bent Propeller, which in 1971 was installed at the entrance of the World Trade Center's North Tower in New York City. When Battery Park City opened, the sculpture was moved to Vesey and Church Streets. The sculpture stood in front of 7 World Trade Center until it was destroyed on September 11, 2001.

In 1974 Calder unveiled to the public two sculptures, Flamingo at Federal Plaza and Universe at Sears Tower, in Chicago, Illinois. The exhibition Alexander Calder: A Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, opened simultaneously with the unveiling of the sculptures. Originally meant to be constructed in 1977 for the Hart Senate Office Building, Mountains and Cloudswas not built until 1985 due to government budget cuts. The massive project, constructed of sheet steel and weighing 35 tons, spans the entire nine-story height of the building's atrium in Washington DC. Calder designed the maquette in the last year of his life for the US Senate.

In addition to sculptures, Calder painted throughout his career, beginning in the early 1920s. He picked up his study of printmaking in 1925, and continued to produce illustrations for books and journals. His many projects from this period include pen-and-ink line drawings of animals for a 1931 publication of Aesop’s fables. As Calder’s sculpture moved into the realm of pure abstraction in the early 1930s, so did his prints. The thin lines used to define figures in the earlier prints and drawings began delineating groups of geometric shapes, often in motion. Calder also used prints for advocacy, as in poster prints from 1967 and 1969 protesting the Vietnam War.

As Calder’s professional reputation expanded in the late 1940s and 1950s, so did his production of prints. Masses of lithographs based on his gouache paintings hit the market, and deluxe editions of plays, poems, and short stories illustrated with fine art prints by Calder became available for sale.

In 1972, Dallas, Texas, based Braniff International Airways commissioned Calder to paint a full-size Douglas DC-8-62 four engined airliner as a "flying canvas." George Stanley Gordon, founder of the New York City advertising agency Gordon and Shortt, approached Alexander Calder with the idea of painting a jet airliner. Calder responded that he did not paint toys and Gordon told him it was a real full sized airliner that he proposed that Calder paint. Calder immediately gave his approval and George knew that Braniff International, known for melding the worlds of fashion and design with the mysterious world of aviation, would be the perfect company to propose his idea of Calder painting one of their jets. Braniff Chairman Harding Lawrence was highly receptive to the idea and a contract was drawn up that called for the painting of one Douglas DC-8-62 jet liner and 50 gouaches for a total price of $100,000.In 1975, Calder was commissioned to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL, which would be the first vehicle in the BMW Art Car Project.

Calder created over 2,000 pieces of jewelry over the course of his career, many of them as gifts for friends and relatives. Several pieces reflect Calder's fascination with art from Africa and other continents. They were mostly made of brass and steel, with bits of ceramic, wood and glass. Calder rarely used solder; when he needed to join strips of metal, he linked them with loops, bound them with snippets of wire or fashioned rivets. Calder created his first pieces in 1906 at the age of eight for his sister's dolls using copper wire that he found in the street.

For his lifelong friend Joan Miró, he set a shard of a broken porcelain vessel in a brass ring. Peggy Guggenheim received enormous silver mobile earrings and later commissioned a hammered silver headboard that shimmered with dangling fish. In 1942, Guggenheim wore one Calder earring and one by Yves Tanguy to the opening of her New York gallery, The Art of This Century, to demonstrate her equal loyalty to Surrealist and abstract art, examples of which she displayed in separate galleries. Others who were presented with Calder's pieces were the artist's close friend, Georgia O'Keeffe; Teeny Duchamp, wife of Marcel Duchamp; Jeanne Rucar, wife of the filmmaker Luis Buñuel; and Bella Rosenfeld, wife of Marc Chagall.

Calder's first solo exhibition came in 1927, at the Gallery of Jacques Seligmann in Paris. In 1928, his first solo show in a US commercial gallery was at the Weyhe Gallery in New York City. In 1933, he exhibited with the Abstraction-Création group in Paris.

In 1935, he had his first solo museum exhibition in the United States at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. In New York, he was championed from the early 1930s by the Museum of Modern Art, and was one of three Americans to be included in Alfred H. Barr Jr.'s 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art.

Calder's first retrospective was held in 1938 at George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1943, theMuseum of Modern Art hosted a well-received Calder retrospective, curated by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp; the show had to be extended due to the sheer number of visitors. Calder was one of 250 sculptors who exhibited in the 3rd Sculpture International held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the summer of 1949. His mobile, International Mobile was the centerpiece of the exhibition. Calder also participated in documentas I (1955), II (1959), III (1964). A retrospective of his work opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1964. Five years later, the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, held its own Calder retrospective. In addition, both of Calder's dealers, Galerie Maeght in Paris and the Perls Galleries in New York, averaged about one Calder show each per year.