Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Alexander Calder was born in Philadelphia in 1898. He came from a well-known family of artists, both his father and grandfather having been sculptors. From a young age, he was more interested in mechanical tools than in clay or brushes. In 1919 he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and worked various jobs before enrolling in the Art Students League, New York in 1923. During his studies he made drawings and caricatures tied to the circus and sports events for the National Police Gazette of New York.
In 1926, he moved to Paris, where he frequented the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He began his career as a sculptor, making his first works in wire: articulated figures exhibited at the Salon des Humoristes in 1927. The body of paintings and graphic works he developed thereafter remained closely tied to these sculptures; Calder always preferred, in designing his objects, to draw with pen or pencil as opposed to modeling clay. Until 1929 he worked in his studio on creating a miniature circus of 200 animals, acrobats, and clowns in wire and cloth, animated by hand; he assembled a spectacle with sound effects and music, and performed his Cirque throughout the world; it was a real performance – a new form of expression to which the other artists of the period all aspired.
Having earned an international reputation thanks to various exhibitions in New York, Berlin, and Paris, Calder tied himself to the supporters of the Parisian avant-garde from Joan Miró and Fernand Léger to Corbusier and of course Piet Mondrian, whose influence proved to be decisive. Calder adopted an entirely abstract style and exhibited in 1932 at Galerie Vignon a new type of work: articulated iron rods and metal plates, painted in black and white with sometimes one or two sides of colour, and put in motion by a small motor. Baptised ‘Mobiles’ by Marcel Duchamp, these articulated contraptions brought him a bright success and were soon thereafter exhibited in the United States.
The mobile, a totally new invention in modern art, would later know diverse variations imagined by the artist: wide-ranging dimensions, from miniature to gigantic, the mobiles can either stand or be suspended (fixed constructions are called ‘stabiles’). Later, his mobiles were put into motion no longer by motor but rather by nature and chance, by which the movement of each unique element had become independent.
Calder’s sculpture oeuvre is united by simple, finely delineated and coloured forms which are so light that they seem to float. In these works Calder demonstrates his innovative and spirited handling of such materials as wire, sheet metal, wood, and bronze.
Beginning in the 1940s, Calder’s outdoor sculptures of monumental scale were installed in cities throughout the Western world (for example: Spirale, 1958: the seat of Unesco in Paris; Brasilia, 1965, Fondation Gianadda, Martigny; L’Homme, 1967, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montréal).
The 1950s saw the creation of two new types of mobiles: the series Towers, scaffold-like structures made of wire; and Gongs, which included small hammers that would strike the metal plates through their movement, adding a dimension of sound to the mobile experience.
A prolific artist, Calder dedicated himself to diverse forms of art throughout his career, as seen by the drawings that accompany his mobiles, prints as well as gouache: he adopted this technique from the 1930s and rapidly developed a purely abstract style that flourished in the post-war years, after having emancipated from the influence of Miró, as is shown by various exhibitions at the time. Calder even designed jewellery, tapestries, plates, theatre sets, airplane cabins, and automobile bodies.
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