Alexander Calder (July 22, 1898 - November 11, 1976), also known as Sandy Calder, was an American sculptor and artist most famous for inventing the mobile. In addition to mobile and stabile sculpture, Alexander Calder also created paintings, lithographs, and tapestry, and designed carpets.
Born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, Calder came from a family of sculptors, with both his father Alexander Stirling Calder and grandfather Alexander Milne Calder sharing the same name. Whilst his mother, Nanette Lederer Calder was a painter.
Although his parents encouraged his creativity as a child, they discouraged their children from becoming artists, knowing that it was an uncertain and financially difficult career. Calder initially trained as a mechanical engineer, receiving a degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919. He then spent several years taking on a variety of engineering jobs such as assistant to a hydraulics engineer and engineer in a Canadian logging camp, but he wasn't content in any of the roles. In June 1922, Calder took a job as a fireman in the boiler room of the passenger ship H. F. Alexander. As the ship sailed from San Francisco to New York, Calder woke early one morning and saw a sunrise with moon-set which deeply impressed him with the wonders of the universe and set him on the path of becoming an artist. As he describes 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.
Having taken the decision to become an artist, Calder moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students' League. Whilst a student, Calder became fascinated with the circus, sketching a number of studies on circus themes and sculpting a number of wire frame circus animals and carnival performers. On graduating, Calder moved to Paris to continue his studies in art. He took his wire model circus with him, and began to give elaborately improvised shows recreating the performance of a real circus. Pretty soon, his Cirque Calder became popular with the Parisian avant-garde and Calder was charging an entrance fee to see his two hour show of a circus that could pack into suitcase.
In 1928 Calder had his first solo show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York and he spent much of the next decade crossing the Atlantic to give shows in Europe and America. On one transatlantic steamer, he met his wife Louisa James, getting married in 1931.
Whilst in Paris, Calder met and became friends with a number of avant-garde artists include Joan Miró, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp. In particular, a visit to Piet Mondrian's studio in 1930 'shocked' him to embrace abstract art.
The Cirque Calder can be seen as the start of Calder's interest in both wire modeling and kinetic art with an eye to the engineering balance of the sculptures. These were all the qualities required to develop mobiles, the name Duchamp gave to Calder's kinetic sculptures. Indeed some of the characters in the circus were already designed to perform suspended from a thread. However, it was the admixture of his experiments to develop purely abstract sculpture following his visit with Mondrian that lead to his first truly kinetic sculptures which were manipulated by a means of cranks and pulleys. By the end of 1931 he had quickly moved on to more delicate sculptures which derived their motion from the air currents in the room, and true mobiles were born. At much the same time, Calder was also experimenting with self supporting, static, abstract sculptures, dubbed stabiles by Arp to differentiate them from mobiles.
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). Calder continued to give Cirque Calder performances, but also met Martha Graham and designed stage sets for her ballets with Erik Satie.
During the Second World War, Calder attempted to join up as a marine, but was rejected. Instead, he continued to sculpt, but a scarcity of metal lead to him producing work in carved wood. After the war, Calder had several major retrospective exhibitions, including one in the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943.
In the 1950s, Calder increasingly concentrated his efforts on producing monumental sculptures. Notable examples are.125 for JFK Airport in 1957 and La Spirale for UNESCO in Paris 1958. Calder's largest sculpture at 20.5 m high, was El Sol Rojo constructed for the Olympic games in Mexico City.
In 1966 Calder published his Autobiography with Pictures with the help of his son-in-law Jean Davidson.
Calder died on November 11, 1976, shortly following the opening of another major retrospective show at the Whitney Museum New York.