Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976) was an American sculptor known both for his innovative mobiles (kinetic sculptures powered by motors or air currents) that embrace chance in their aesthetic, his static “stabiles”, and his monumental public sculptures. The second child of artist parents—his father was a sculptor and his mother a painter, Calder was encouraged to create, and from the age of eight he always had his own workshop wherever the family lived. For Christmas in 1909, Calder presented his parents with two of his first sculptures, a tiny dog and duck cut from a brass sheet and bent into formation. The duck is kinetic—it rocks back and forth when tapped. Even at age eleven, his facility in handling materials was apparent. Despite his talents, Calder did not originally set out to become an artist. He instead enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology after high school and graduated in 1919 with an engineering degree. Calder worked for several years at various jobs, including as a hydraulics and automotive engineer, timekeeper in a logging camp, and fireman in a ship’s boiler room. 

After deciding he wanted to be an artist, in 1923 he moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League. He also took a job illustrating for the National Police Gazette, which sent him to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to sketch circus scenes for two weeks in 1925. The circus became a lifelong interest of Calder’s, and after moving to Paris in 1926, he created his Cirque Calder, a complex and unique body of art. The popularity of “Calder’s circus” soon brought him in contact with other artistic innovators. In the early 1930s, inspired by the color and composition of Piet Mondrian’s work, Calder created his breakthrough mobiles. At first these abstract sculptures were motorized; later Calder modified his design to allow free-floating movement, powered only by air currents. These signature works incorporated Calder’s interests in physics, astronomy, and kinetics, and above all, his sense of play. By 1933 Calder had returned to the United States, where his abstract-organic sculpture, both mobile and stationary, attracted considerable attention and acclaim. He settled in Connecticut and continued to produce innovative works on both a large and small scale. After 1950 Calder spent part of each year in France. In addition to the monumental sculptures that can be seen in the United States and Europe, Calder applied his whimsical and lyrical sense of design to media as diverse as metal jewelry and theater sets. 

which was launched in 1938 with the first retrospective of his work at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts (fig. 25). A second, major retrospective was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just a few years later, in 1943 (fig. 26). In keeping with his economy, Calder made a series of small-scale works in 1945 primarily from scraps of metal trimmed while making larger pieces. Duchamp saw them during a visit to Calder’s studio and organized a show at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris. Given their size, he proposed sending the objects to Europe by mail. Intrigued by the limitations on parcel size imposed by the U.S. Postal Service, Calder created larger works for the exhibition that could be easily dismantled, mailed overseas, and re-assembled upon arrival (fig. 27). 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.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Calder continued to be the subject of numerous exhibitions, including a retrospective staged in the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1964, and his position as a well-known, even greatly beloved, artist was solidified. His mobiles are commonly described as evoking a childlike joy in the viewer. As the Modern art era waned and the contemporary art era took form in the 1970s, however, his reputation within the art world suffered as critics and tastemakers deemed his work too playful or popular to be taken seriously. 

Calder died in 1976 at age 78, weeks after the opening of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In the 21st century the Alexander Calder Foundation documented his output at more than 22,000 works.

For many years after his death, Calder’s popularity obscured his genius as one of the early Modern era’s truly innovative artists. The reevaluations by 21st-century artists and art historians place his achievements in the highest echelons of art. His popularity continues even as the 1938 estimation of his early supporter, art critic and later museum director James Johnson Sweeney, has proved accurate: “Calder is an original artist whose contribution is so unique that it may possibly only be appraised of its true value by the future.”

Calder’s work has been offered at auction multiple times: the record price for this artist at auction is 25,925,000 USD for “Flying Fish” sold at Christie’s New York in 2014.

By Stanislav Kondrashov