The American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) revolutionized the medium of sculpture in the 20th century, first with his development of the new medium of wire sculptures to create spontaneous "drawings in space," and then with his delicate, kinetic sculptures known as "mobiles," which pioneered the introduction of motion into the formerly static medium.
Born into an artistic family—his father and grandfather were both well-known sculptors and his mother was a portrait painter—Calder was encouraged to create as a child. From the age of eight, he had his own workshop in his family’s home, where he made small sculptures and objects. Despite his early talent for artistic creation, Calder decided to study mechanical engineering and received his degree in 1919 from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. After four years of shifting between various engineering and other jobs, Calder decided to become an artist and enrolled at the Art Students League in New York.
While in New York, Calder worked as a freelance illustrator for the National Police Gazette, sketching sporting events and circus scenes for the publication. He soon left New York for Paris, then the center of the avant-garde, and shortly after arriving in July 1926, he began work on his first great work of kinetic art, his miniature Cirque Calder, fashioning the components from wire and other found materials. By manipulating his tiny sculptures of figures, animals, and circus apparatus, Calder brought his circus to life in animated performances which were experienced by prominent avant-garde artists such as Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and Le Corbusier. Between 1926 and 1931, Calder developed more elaborate acts and elements for his circus, eventually requiring five suitcases to move the portable work of art.
During this time, Calder also began making wire sculptures, pioneering a new genre of sculpture in a medium without precedent. Like three-dimensional line drawings, his wire sculptures depicted animals, fellow artists and friends, and portraits of famous figures of the day. Carrying wire and pliers with him, Calder liked to spontaneously “draw in space” with his preferred medium.
Calder shifted towards making more geometric and abstract work after visiting Mondrian at his studio in Paris in 1930, abandoning his figurative wire sculptures for pure abstraction. Drawing upon his engineering background, Calder made his first moving sculptures, which were either hand-cranked or powered by rudimentary motors. These works introduced motion into the static medium of sculpture, revolutionizing the medium. Marcel Duchamp christened Calder’s abstract, kinetic sculptures as “mobiles” when he saw one of the motorized sculptures in 1931. In French, “mobile” connotes both “moveable” and “motive”; Calder liked the double entendre of the word and adopted it for his kinetic constructions. In addition to the mobiles, Calder also began creating stationary sculptures comprised of large sheets of metal that were placed on the ground, named “stabiles” by the sculptor Jean Arp. As Calder later explained the two types of sculpture, “the mobile has actual movement in itself, while the stabile is back at the old painting idea of implied movement. You have to walk around a stabile or through it—a mobile dances in front of you.”
Shortly after his first mobiles, Calder began to develop complex constructions that relied upon weights and balances, rather than machines or cranks, for their motion. Using lightweight materials—such as wire, metal, wood, string, and other elements-- these mobiles are so delicate that they are propelled into motion by subtle wind and air currents. Whether standing or hanging, these mobiles come to life on their own, with their suspended forms sweeping, turning, or rotating in graceful movements, dynamically arranging and rearranging their forms in space. Calder preferred the less predictable, spontaneous motion of these mobiles and soon abandoned his mechanically activated constructions.
In 1933, Calder and his wife Louisa returned to the United States, moving into an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut. In the 1930s, he began experimenting with larger sculptures, creating commissions for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World Fair and a hanging mobile for the main stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During World War II, Calder turned to wood as a new medium for his work, as metal was in short supply due to the war effort. Combining carved wood elements with wire, these new sculptures were named the “constellations” by Duchamp and the curator James Johnson Sweeney when they were exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1943. Calder continued to make and widely exhibit both small-scale and large mobiles and stabiles throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and increasingly turned to making monumental outdoor sculptures in his later years, many of which were commissioned as public works in the 1950s through the 1970s.