Design & Make

The Art and Life of Alexander Calder

by Jessica Hundley June 07, 2018
ReadThe Art and Life of Alexander Calder

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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