Alexander Calder was born on July or August 22, 1898, in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, into a family of artists. In 1919, he received an engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Calder attended the Art Students League, New York, from 1923 to 1925, studying briefly with Boardman Robinson and John Sloan. As a freelance artist for the National Police Gazette in 1925, he spent two weeks sketching at the circus; his fascination with the subject dates from this time.
He also made his first wire sculpture in 1925, and the following year he made several constructions of animals and figures with wire and wood. Calder’s first exhibition of paintings took place in 1926 at the Artist’s Gallery, New York.
Later that year, he went to Paris and attended the Académie de la grande chaumière.
Soon after moving to Paris in 1926, Calder created his Cirque Calder. Made of wire and a spectrum of found materials, the Cirque was a work of performance art that gained Calder an introduction to the Parisian avant-garde.In Paris, he met Stanley William Hayter. That same year, he met Joan Miró, who became a lifelong friend. Calder continued to explore his invention of wire sculpture, whereby he “drew” with wire in three dimensions the portraits of friends, animals, circus themes, and personalities of the day. Subsequently, Calder divided his time between France and the United States. In 1928, he was given his first solo exhibition of these sculptures at the Weyhe Gallery in New York.
In 1929, the Galerie Billiet gave him his first solo show in Paris. He met Frederick Kiesler, Fernand Léger, and Theo van Doesburg.
Following a visit in October of 1930 to Mondrian’s studio, where he was impressed by the environment and actuation of space, Calder made his first wholly abstract compositions and invented the kinetic sculpture now known as the mobile. Coined for these works by Marcel Duchamp in 1931, the word mobile refers to both “motion” and “motive” in French. The earliest mobiles moved by a system of cranks and motors, although these mechanics were virtually abandoned as Calder developed mobiles that responded to air currents, light, humidity, and human interaction. He also created stationary abstract works that Jean Arp dubbed stabiles. The first of Calder’s outdoor works were made during this era as well.
Around this time, he also encountered James Johnson Sweeney, future director of the Guggenheim Museum, who would become a close friend and supporter. He exhibited with the group Abstraction-Création (Abstraction Creation, 1931–36) in Paris in 1933. In 1943, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gave him a retrospective.
Eager to exhibit again in Europe after the end of World War II, Calder had a major show in 1946 at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a seminal essay. Calder traveled to Brazil in 1948 where he held two highly successful exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. International Mobile, made in 1949 for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Third International Exhibition of Sculpture, was Calder's largest mobile to date. He designed sets and costumes for a number of theatrical performances and accepted a grand commission to design a huge acoustic ceiling for the Aula Magna auditorium at Universidad Central de Venezuela. In 1952, Calder represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, winning the grand prize for sculpture.
He exhibited, along with other pioneers of Kinetic art including Yaacov Agam and Jean Tinguely, in Le mouvement (Movement) at the Galerie Denise René, Paris, in 1955.Late in the decade, the artist worked extensively with gouache; from this period, he executed numerous major public commissions. Retrospectives of Calder's work were held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (1964); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1964); Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris (1965); the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France (1969); and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1976). Calder died in New York in 1976 at the age of seventy-eight.
August 22, 1898
Lawnton, Pennsylvania, USA
November 11, 1976
New York, NY, USA