One of America’s prominent 20th century sculptors, Alexander Calder is best known for his Mobiles and Stabiles. Calder worked in virtually every medium during his long and productive life, from painting to printmaking to jewelry and commercial design.
He was the first artist to paint the exterior of an airplane – Flying Colors – a commission from Braniff Airlines in the 1970s. His work in kinetic sculpture, however, which can be found in museums and public spaces throughout the world. Calder’s art is a reflection of his rich, benevolent character and his devotion to the splendor of the world around us.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1898, the son of Alexander Sterling Calder and the grandson of Alexander Milne Calder, well known sculptors of public monumental works. His mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, was a professional portrait painter.
He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919 and he tried a variety of jobs. In 1923, Calder enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City, where his teachers were John Sloan, Guy Pene Du Bois, and Boardman Robinson. In classes there he did numerous oil paintings and also humorous drawings of sporting events for the “National Police Gazette.” In 1925, he produced an illustrated book titled “Animal Sketching,” one-line drawings that foreshadowed his early wire sculptures of figures and animals. In 1926, encouraged by an engineer friend of his father to follow his talent, he went to Paris where he lived the next seven years and shortly after his arrival began doing wire sculpture. While in Paris, he also met many of the leading avant-garde artists of the day including Piet Mondrian, who influenced Calder’s geometric, non-objective constructions that he began producing in 1931. His floor pieces, named “stabiles” by Jean Arp, were exhibited in a gallery exhibition organized by Marcel Duchamp, who coined the word “mobile” for the hanging, kinetic pieces. Soon Calder was creating many of these wind-driven works. Calder’s mobiles were first shown in the United States in 1932, and the next year he returned to America and purchased a home in Roxbury, Connecticut where he lived the remainder of his life and gained much attention from that time. Dancer Martha Graham used several of his sculptures in her modern dance performances, and personnel at the Museum of Modern Art in New York began purchasing pieces from him including his first large-scale piece called “Whale” in 1937. During World War II when metal was scarce, he made mobiles and stabiles from carved, painted wood, and in the early 1950s he added to his repertoire wall pieces and mobiles that incorporated sound. Many federal agencies and businesses commissioned works by him, and most major American museums have his pieces in their collections. His death in 1976 coincided with a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York.