Sculptor and kinetic artist Alexander Calder was born in 1898 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Alexander Stirling Calder and grandson of Alexander Milne Calder, both well know sculptors. He was encouraged to sculpt and construct things in his own workshop at an early age. In 1919 he graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering, and after holding several jobs, he decided to take classes at the Art Students League in New York City. During his student years he did line drawings for the National Police Gazette. Calder began exhibiting his paintings at this time, but also focused on drawing, illustration, and wood and wire sculpture.
In June, 1926 Calder moved to Paris. He attended classes at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and he created his performance piece, Cirque Calder, a complex and unique body of art. The assemblage included diminutive performers, animals, and props fashioned from wire, leather, cloth, and other found materials. Cirque Calder was designed to be manipulated manually by Calder. Every piece was small enough to be packed into a large trunk, enabling the artist to carry it with him and hold performances anywhere. Its first performance was held in Paris for an audience of friends and peers, and soon Calder was presenting the circus in both Paris and New York to much success. Calder’s renderings of his circus often lasted about two hours and were quite elaborate. Indeed, the Cirque Calder predated performance art by forty years.
Alexander Calder befriended many influential artists, including Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Marcel Duchamp, and Yves Tanguy. He was invited to join Abstraction-Création, an influential group of artists including Arp, Mondrian, and Hélion with whom he had become friendly.
In 1930 Calder met the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and visited his studio, an event that made him suddenly aware of the modern movement in painting and that influenced his work in the direction of the abstract. In the winter of 1931–32 he began to make motor-driven sculptures consisting of various geometric shapes. The name mobile was given to them by Marcel Duchamp. Movement gave each of these sculptures a continually changing composition. Calder also constructed sets for ballets by both Martha Graham and Eric Satie during the 1930s, and continued to give Cirque Calder performances.
In 1931 Calder married Louisa Cushing James, and after their marriage the Calders traveled continually, not only between France and the United States but also to South America and Asia. In 1933, Calder and Louisa left France and returned to the United States, where they purchased an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut. Calder converted an icehouse attached to the main house into a studio for himself. Their first daughter, Sandra, was born in 1935, and a second daughter, Mary, followed in 1939.
Because metal was in short supply during the war years, Calder turned increasingly to wood as a sculptural medium. Working in wood resulted in yet another original form of sculpture, works called constellations by Sweeney and Duchamp. With their carved wood elements anchored by wire, the constellations were so called because they suggested the cosmos, though Calder did not intend that they represent anything in particular. The Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York held an exhibition of these works in the spring of 1943. His association with Matisse ended shortly thereafter and he took up the Buchholz Gallery/Curt Valentin as his New York representation.
The forties and fifties were a remarkably productive period for Calder. In 1939 the first retrospective of his work was exhibited at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. A second, major retrospective was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just a few years later, in 1943.
In 1945, Alexander Calder made a series of small-scale works; in keeping with his economy, many were made from scraps of metal trimmed while making larger pieces. While visiting Calder’s studio about this time, Duchamp was intrigued by these small works. Inspired by the idea that the works could be easily dismantled, mailed to Europe, and re-assembled for an exhibition, he planned a Calder show at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris. This important show was held the following year and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his famous essay on Calder’s mobiles for the exhibition catalogue.
In 1949, Calder constructed his largest mobile to date, International Mobile, for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Third International Exhibition of Sculpture. Galerie Maeght in Paris also held a Calder show in 1950, and subsequently became Calder’s exclusive Parisian dealer. His association with Galerie Maeght lasted twenty-six years, until his death in 1976. After his New York dealer Curt Valentin died unexpectedly in 1954, Calder selected the Perls Gallery in New York as his new American dealer, and this alliance also lasted until the end of his life.
Calder concentrated his efforts primarily on large-scale commissioned works in his later years. As the range and breadth of his various projects and commissions indicate, Calder’s artistic talents were renowned worldwide by the 1960s. A retrospective of his work opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1964. Five years later, the Fondation Maeght, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, held its own Alexander Calder retrospective. In 1966, Calder, together with his son-in-law Jean Davidson, published a well-received autobiography. Additionally, both of Calder’s dealers, Galerie Maeght in Paris and the Perls Gallery in New York, averaged about one Calder show each per year.
In 1976, he attended the opening of yet another retrospective of his work, Calder’s Universe, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Just a few weeks later, Alexander Calder died at the age of seventy-eight, ending the most prolific and innovative artistic career of the twentieth century.