Alexander Calder

Lawnton, 1898 – New York, 1976


Alexander Calder known as Sandy, was born into a long line of sculptors, being part of the fourth generation to take up the art form. Constructing objects from a very young age, his first known art tool was a pair of pliers. At eight, Calder was creating jewelry for his sister’s dolls from beads and copper wire. Over the next few years, as his family moved to Pasadena, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco, he crafted small animal figures and game boards from scavenged wood and brass. Calder’s interest initially led not to art, but to mechanical engineering and applied kinetics, which he studied at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915-1919).

After graduating from college, Calder tried many jobs: automotive engineer, draftsman and map-colorist, steam boat stoker, and hydraulics engineer among them. In 1922, he took evening drawing classes at the 42nd Street New York Public School. The next year he studied painting at the Arts Students League (1923-1926), with John Sloan and George Luks while working as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette. An assignment to illustrate acts at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus led to his interest in the circus.

In 1926, after showing paintings at The Artists’ Gallery in New York he moved to Paris. Once there, he began making the moving toys and figures that would become Calder’s Circus(1926-31). He also began using wire to produce linear portraits and figurative sculptures. He became popular in the art world for his Calder’s Circus performances during which he set in motion the many different characters and animals he had created. In Paris, Calder met Joan Miró, who became an important influence and close friend. In 1929, Calder began producing jewelry with the same wire he used in his sculpture. He continued jewelry work throughout his career, primarily making necklaces, rings, brooches, and bracelets for friends. Calder moved frequently from studio to studio and between New York and Paris. On one of his many transatlantic boat trips he met Louisa James, who he married in 1931.

In the late 1920s Calder created more figurative oil paintings, but a 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio led Calder to shift from figuration to the abstraction permanently. Upon entering the studio, Calder became fixated on the colored rectangles covering one of the walls: he said he would like to make them physically move. Calder joined the influential Abstraction-Creation group and focused on finding a way to make abstract color move through space. A year later he exhibited his first abstract wire works and produced his initial, groundbreaking mechanized sculptures, pioneering kinetic art. Marcel Duchamp named these works “mobiles,” a term that also encompassed the subsequent sculptures Calder created that relied on the movement of air rather than motors.

Full artist’s biography: Alexander Calder

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