Alexander Calder is a sculptor who pioneered the use of steel wire and sheets of cut metal in various combinations for radical new compositional, spatial, and environmental effects. He became famous in the late 1920s to early 1930s for working in heavy, industrial wire and inventing the mobile. In the 1940s, he invented the stabile, a more solid, stationary variation on the mobile. His stabiles became popular and famous as public, outdoor sculptures, and many have been installed in large urban centers all over the world. Although he produced mostly sculptures, he painted throughout his life, especially in his youth. He also produced many pieces of jewelry and other decorative objects. He created numerous sculptures that were carved in wood or cast in bronze.
Calder was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father and grandfather were important sculptors in the city during the nineteenth century. He studied mechanical engineering at Stephens Institute of Technology in Hoboken in the 1920s, and this exposure to engineering greatly influenced his development of techniques and use of materials. He left engineering to pursue his growing interest in art and studied at the Art Students League in New York City. In the late 1920s, he visited France several times. His trips abroad allowed him to study recent developments in European modernist art firsthand and to get to know many internationally important artists. He became very interested in the work of Hans Arp, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian. He borrowed much from these artists, who did mostly paintings or painted relief sculptures, to create his own sculptures.
In the late 1920s, Calder constructed and painted many small objects and figures, which he arranged and connected to create his Circus (1926–1931), a large, table-top mixed-media sculpture full of humor and sweet, easy charm. The sculpture was interactive and performative; Calder would operate the different parts and make the circus figures “perform” their acts. At the same time, he began making sculptures using metal wire. By creating essentially flat and linear objects that were somewhat figurative, he broke with many traditions of sculpture, creating shapes with fluid, graceful, often intricate contours but no interior masses. These sculptural objects are surprisingly flat and two-dimensional, and often seem diaphanous and dematerialized, even though they are unmistakably sculpted with volumetric presence. The Hostess (1928) and The Brass Family (1929) use wire to draw the contours of the figures.
By the early 1930s, Calder began making mobiles and continued to produce them for the rest of his life. A mobile is a sculpture comprised of flat, essentially two-dimensional metal sheets and wires that are carefully interconnected to balance one another in visual harmony and with considerable elegance and grace. Some are completely abstract, while others have broad associations to objects and figures. Some float gracefully in mid-air hanging from ceilings, and others are carefully balanced with other forms and weighted masses around various kinds of bases. In some, Calder connected motors, electrical cords, and other mechanical parts to allow them to move in various ways. Mobiles essentially deny sculpture is solid, firm, hard, and three-dimensional. They may be metallic or painted with various colors and details. Some of Calder's best, most famous mobiles include Object with Red Disks/Calderberry Bush (1931), A Universe (1934), Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939), Hanging Spider (1940), and Big Red (1959).
In the early 1940s, Calder began to create stabiles. A stabile is a larger, heavier variation on the mobile that is made with denser, thicker metal and placed firmly on the floor or ground. It is usually painted with bright metallic colors, and the large, carefully shaped pieces of metal are bolted and soldered together. These works are more static and are not subject to controlled or spontaneous movements like mobiles. Some of the best early stabiles, which are large gallery-scale works, include Performing Seal (1950).
In the last 20 years of his life, Calder and his many assistants produced numerous huge stabiles for outdoor, public spaces. Many have been placed in heavily traveled pedestrian areas and are now quickly associated with certain buildings, cities or towns and instantly recognizable as his works. Some of his most famous public stabiles are La Grande Vitesse (1969) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Flamingo (1974) in Chicago.
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