Calder, Alexander


Credited with the invention of the mobile, Alexander Calder revolutionized twentieth-century art with his innovative use of subtle air currents to animate sculpture.  An accomplished painter of gouaches and a sculptor in a variety of media, Calder is best known for poetic arrangements of boldly colored, irregularly shaped geometric forms that convey a sense of harmony and balance.

Calder was born in a suburb of Philadelphia to a family of artists.  His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, and father, Alexander Stirling Calder, created sculptures and public monuments, and his mother was a painter.  Accustomed to traveling in pursuit of public art commissions, the family moved to Pasadena, California, in 1906.  The new environment—with its expansive night sky studded with brilliant planets and stars—fascinated the young Calder.  These cosmic forms strongly influenced the structure and iconography of his future work.

He moved to Paris in 1926, and during his seven-year stay he delighted fellow artists including Man Ray, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier and Piet Mondrian and attracted the attention of art patrons with his whimsical wire figures and portrait heads.  Calder soon began experimenting with movement in his work.  At first, he drew on his mechanical training to devise cranks and motors that would produce kinetic effects.  The following year, he exhibited these new pieces, christened “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp, as well as non-moving wire abstractions termed “stabiles” by Jean Arp.

In 1933, Calder reestablished his home base in the United States, on a farm in Roxbury, Connecticut.  As he emerged as an artist of international stature, with a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, Calder continued to make mobiles (hanging and standing) and stabiles made out of sheet metal, as well as paintings, jewelry, and set designs for performances by Martha Graham, Eric Satie, and others.

Large-scale sheet-metal stabiles commissioned for public spaces dominate Calder’s late career in the 1960s and 1970s.  Their vivid colors, sweeping arches and shapes evoking birds and animals offer a counterpoint to rectilinear modern architecture and breathe life into urban environments around the world.  Widely celebrated during his lifetime, Calder died in 1976 just a few weeks after the opening of “Calder’s Universe,” a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.