Alexander Calder was more than just the inventor of the mobile; he was a sculptor, painter, performer and printmaker. “My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement.” Calder said, “Even my triangles are spheres, but they are spheres of a different shape.”
Early Life and Education
Alexander Calder was born to a family of extraordinary artists in Lawton, Pennsylvania in 1898. His mother, Nanette Calder, was a portrait painter who studied at the Sorbonne. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a sculptor whose works can be found in Philadelphia and throughout the world, including Miami, where he produced ornamental sculptures for Vizcaya, the James Deering estate.
Calder’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1868. His landmark statue of William Penn graces the tower of the City Hall in Philadelphia. The family encouraged Calder’s early interest in art and always provided a studio for him, although they encouraged him to pursue a career in something more financially stable than art. To that end, after graduating from high school, Calder enrolled in the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
After receiving his degree, Calder worked as a hydraulic engineer and draughtsman for the New York Edison Company. At age 24, Calder took a job as a mechanic on a passenger ship. Calder wrote that on an early morning, he woke up on deck to see the sun rising and the moon setting on opposite horizons. The view inspired Calder to leave the ship and pursue a career as an artist, eventually moving to New York to study at the Art Students League and, in 1926, travel to Paris to study at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere.
Career and Family
Cirque Calder, a miniature circus made of wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps brought Calder much attention both in the U.S. and in Europe. Cirque Calder is currently housed at the Whitney.
Calder created kinetic sculptures, with cranks and motors and, around 1931, his mobiles, which were fashioned to be moved by surrounding air current, became his signature style.
Calder was married to Louisa James, the grandniece of author Henry James and philosopher William James. The couple married in 1931 and moved back to the U.S. in 1933. There bought a farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut, where they raised two daughters.
Alexander Calder’s magnificent sculptures can be found in venues around the world. His Bent Propeller sculpture was installed at the World Trade Center, but destroyed on September 11, 2001. Calder also painted and made prints and jewelry throughout his life. His work can be found at MoMA, the Center George Pompidou, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery of Art and other fine museums and galleries.
Alexander Calder died in New York in 1976, at age 78. He received the Presidential Medal of Honor posthumously in 1977, after refusing it while he was alive, as a protest of the Vietnam war. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service honored Calder with 32-cent postage stamps of his work.