By the end of his nearly century-spanning career, Alexander Calder (1898–1976) had worked in virtually every artistic medium, but metal was undoubtedly his muse. Raised by artist parents, Calder was encouraged to be creative from an early age, producing his first sculptures at age 11.

Mobile by artist Alexander Calder, Untitled, 1959

Calder, Untitled (Mobile), 1959 (Image courtesy of The JPMorgan Chase Art Collection)

Fascinated by kinetics, by movement and physics, Calder studied engineering and would go on to find work as an automotive and hydraulics engineer, before committing himself entirely to art. In the early 1920s, Calder settled in New York, adopting the bohemian life of the era and working for hire as an illustrator. Eventually, Calder would follow the wave of creative expats relocating to Paris. It was in France where he would begin to sculpt his first major works.

Artist Alexander Calder in his Studio in Paris, 1931. (Photo by Marc Vaux)

Calder’s studio on the Rue de la Colonie, Paris, 1931. (Photo by Marc Vaux)

Utilizing metal wire as a flexible alternative to harder metals, Calder discovered a method of bending and cutting which allowed him to create complex images and shapes – among these – portraits of his circle of friends, which included the artists Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miro.

Meanwhile, Calder was also experimenting with abstract painting, more sculptures (both wood and metal) and classic illustration. Finally, in 1931, he experienced a tremendous breakthrough. By marrying his artistic explorations with his engineering skills Calder created his first truly kinetic sculptures, a series of objects powered by motors and cranks and which his colleague Duchamp dubbed “mobiles.” Calder’s invention literally created a new form of art, a genre to which he was immediately devoted.

Artwork "Feathers" by Alexander Calder, 1931. Made of wire, wood, lead and paint. (Image courtesy of Calder Foundation)

“Feathers” (1931). Made with wire, wood, lead and paint, measures 38 1/2 x 32 x 16 inches. (Image courtesy of Calder Foundation)

These mobiles were a revelation, hanging, moving works which seem suspended in air and powered by invisible forces. Formed of floating bits of colored metal, each piece cut into abstract yet simple shapes – teardrops, triangles – they were both playful and mysterious. The mobiles would come in all shapes and sizes, some suited to hang in sunlit window, others to be suspended above the massive entries of public buildings. No matter the size, Calder had hit upon something truly unique. There had been nothing quite like them before, and his colorful mobiles went on to become a worldwide sensation.

Mobile Rouge Triomphant (Red Triumphant) by Artist Alexander Calder, 1963. (Image courtesy of O'Hara Gallery)

Rouge Triomphant, 1963, sheet metal, rod and paint, measures 110 x 230 x 180 inches. (Image courtesy of O’Hara Gallery)

After returning to the States in the mid-1930s, Calder was embraced by the American art world, hired to create sets for Martha Graham ballets and construct massive versions of his sculpture in outdoor public displays. Some of these monumental works include everything from an enormous mobile for JFK airport in New York to a 67 foot tall piece that welcomed visitors to the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Alexander Calder showing his artwork "Circus Lion", 1971. (Image courtesy of Calder Foundation)

Life imitates art: A yawning Alexander Calder holds his Circus Lion, 1971. (Image courtesy of Calder Foundation)

Today Calder’s works are reproduced in large numbers, and his hanging mobiles, colorful and complex works of moving Modern art, mark his legacy as one of the most prolific and imaginative artists of the 20th Century.

9 Comments

  1. sophie
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 7:17 AM | Permalink

    great article.

    i read a quote a long time ago something like "thank god we have Calder's sculptures to inject life into these bare bones modern spaces"

  2. t.c.w.
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:23 PM | Permalink

    love the circus movie. thanks!

  3. caroline
    Posted September 12, 2010 at 3:47 PM | Permalink

    Great article. Thanks Jessica.

  4. Hilda N.
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 5:48 PM | Permalink

    Calder's mobiles are so much fun! I have a mobile hanging in my den. I love the way it sways when there is a draft and the way it makes whimsical shadows on the wall. When we bought it, we were told it was a Calder. If it is, it was a steal, but after some research, I'm inclined to doubt it. Nonetheless, I enjoy it as it was definitely Calder inspired. 🙂

    P.S. Your website is a pleasure to visit. I love your products and your interesting articles.

  5. stephanie
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 12:39 AM | Permalink

    Absolutely loved this!! Can't wait to show my granddaughters!!

    Thank you for a great website!!

    Steph

  6. Posted February 15, 2013 at 5:20 AM | Permalink

    what kind of jobs did his family and kids have

    ?

  7. alexredgrave
    Posted September 3, 2014 at 8:31 AM | Permalink

    Thanks!

    We have more artist & designer profiles coming up in the fall. Stay tuned…

  8. Katherine
    Posted March 29, 2015 at 4:43 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for Alexander Calder! Thank you for never growing up! Thank you for the modern thinking! and for showing it to us.

  9. Posted March 23, 2016 at 4:36 PM | Permalink

    My favorite piece of public art at Lincoln Center is Alexander Calder’s Le Guichet – The Box Office. It sits majestically in between the Metropolitan Opera House, the Vivian Beaumont Theater and the New York Public Library Performing Arts branch. It is in Calderesque language, a Stabile. It is heroic in size but there is a wonderful sense of Mr. Calder’s whimsical side.
    I just returned from a business trip to Washington DC where I saw Mr. Calder’s remarkable Mountains & Clouds in the Hart Senate Office Building Lobby. It is huge and breathtaking

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