Discipline: Visual Art – sculpture

Alexander Calder

Discipline: Visual Art – sculpture
Region: New York, NY

Edward MacDowell Medalist: 1963

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is widely considered to be one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century. He is best known for his colorful, whimsical abstract public sculptures and his innovative mobiles, kinetic sculptures powered by motors or air currents, which embraced chance in their aesthetic. He was born into a family of accomplished artists including sculptor Alexander Milne Calder (grandfather), sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder (father), and professional portrait artist Nanette née Lederer (mother).

Calder's parents did not want him to suffer the life of an artist, so he decided to study mechanical engineering. He enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1915. Calder received a degree from Stevens in 1919. For the next several years, he held a variety of jobs, including working as a hydraulic engineer and a draughtsman for the New York Edison Company.

After a life-changing experience aboard the H. F. Alexander, where he saw both the sun rising and the full moon setting on opposite horizons, Calder decided to move back to New York to pursue a career as an artist. He enrolled at the Art Students League, studying briefly with Thomas Hart Benton, George Luks, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and John Sloan. While a student, he worked for the National Police Gazette where he first became fascinated with the action of the circus.

In 1926, Calder moved to Paris, enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and established a studio at 22 rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse Quarter. In June 1929, while traveling by boat from Paris to New York, Calder met his future wife, Louisa James. While in Paris, Calder met and became friends with a number of avant-garde artists, including Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp.

In 1926, at the suggestion of a Serbian toy merchant in Paris, Calder began to make mechanical toys. At the urging of fellow sculptor Jose de Creeft, he submitted them to the Salon des Humoristes. Calder began to create his Cirque Calder, a miniature circus fashioned from wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork, and other found objects.

Calder represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and was awarded the main prize for sculpture in 1952. He also received First Prize for Sculpture at the Pittsburgh International (1958); the Grand Prix National des Art et Lettres, Ministry of Culture, France (1974); the U.N. Peace Medal (1975); and a one half ounce gold medallion issued by the United States Mint (1983). Calder was honored by the US Postal Service with a set of five 32-cent stamps in 1998, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously in 1977, after refusing to receive it from Gerald Ford one year earlier in protest of the Vietnam War.

Calder’s kinetic sculptures are regarded as being amongst the earliest manifestations of an art that consciously departed from the traditional notion of the art work as a static object and integrated the ideas of gesture and immateriality as aesthetic factors. Although Calder’s sculptures are not explicitly representational, many of his themes, symbols and shapes are related to the cosmos or suggestive of nature.

Portrait Courtesy of MFA