By Mary Manion
Since the ancient Egyptians and Greeks first carved wood and stone into recognizable forms, it was assumed that sculpture was static. Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was determined to change that preconception. He is considered the originator of kinetic sculpture, dubbed “mobiles” by his friend Marcel Duchamp, an inspiration behind much 20th century avant-garde art.
Calder came from a distinguished line of sculptors. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, carved the huge statue of William Penn atop the Philadelphia City Hall, and his father, Stirling Calder, adorned the City of Brotherly Love with many statues. His mother, Nanette, was a portrait artist who had studied in Paris. Needless to add, the family gave every encouragement to Alexander’s creative proclivities.
Yet, young Calder showed as much interest in fashioning toys and studying mechanical engineering as in the fine arts. His studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., resulted in an engineering degree that proved useful in constructing
moveable sculptures. Sandy, as he was known by his family and classmates, worked for several years as a mechanical draftsman and hydraulic engineer. But the muse of art continued to whisper encouragement. Calder enrolled in New York City’s Art Students League and moved to Paris in 1926, where he palled around such leading lights of Modernism as Duchamp, Joan Miro and Jean Arp.
While in Paris, his interests in art and engineering finally converged in carefully balanced sculptures that embraced the idea that there was nothing static about modern life. A mobile was always in flux. Encouraged by his ongoing interest in the circus, the young Calder began making moveable toys crafted from wire, rubber and other at-hand materials. The result was a miniature circus, small enough to fit into a suitcase and designed to re-create the performance of the real thing. Calling it the Cirque Calder, he began holding improvised shows entertaining his friends in the modern art milieu.
After returning the the U.S. in 1927, he found a manufacturing company, Gould, in Oshkosh, Wis., that began mass-producing his miniature moveable toys. While still performing his Cirque Calder shows, he met the choreographer Martha Graham and throughout the 1930s, designed stage sets for her dance company. Always fascinated by motion, he began creating hanging sculptures with moveable parts, made kinetic by air current in an enclosed room or powered by wind if outdoors. He also experimented with self-supporting, carefully balanced abstract sculptures that, because of their non-moveable nature, he called “stabiles,” a term coined by fellow artist Jean Arp. As his works became larger in scale, Calder had to rethink his working methods in the face of the buffeting outdoors by strong winds.
He began with scale models and, under his direction, commissioned fabricators to construct the finished product. During World War II, he carved in wood, as metal was scarce, and continued to shape large abstract stabiles. After the war, Calder began to cut designs out of sheet metal and hand-paint the resulting shapes in his signature red, white, blue and black color palette. By the 1950s, Calder was doing commission work for prestigious public spaces, most notably New York’s Idlewild (later JFK) Airport (1957) and UNESCO headquarters in Paris (1958).
In 1969, the National Endowment for the Arts inaugurated its Art for Public Places program
with Calder’s massive outdoor stabile, “La Grande Vitesse,” installed in Grand Rapids, Mich. Many of Calder’s greatest installations can be seen continuously in such major venues as the Federal Plaza in Chicago, the Hart State Senate Building in Washington, D.C., and until 9-11, the “WTC Stabile,” which stood in front of the World Trade Center. His outdoor sculptures are also on display at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Australia and in major cities such as Lisbon, Berlin, Caracas, Venezuela and Tel Aviv.
While he is best known for his mobiles and stabiles, his sculpture is only half the story. As early as the 1920s, Calder was painting, producing illustrations for books and dabbling in print-making. A 1931 publication of “Aesop’s Fables” included his pen and ink drawings. By the late 1940s, his production of prints was in full swing. His main body of print work resembles his suspended mobiles, with colorful, somewhat playful geometric shapes juxtaposed on a neutral white background; altogether they
were decorative and modern. The market for his prints, mainly silkscreen, lithographs and earlier etchings is active.
“Boomerang” (1970), a color lithograph sold for $2,000 (hammer) at Du Mouchelles in Detroit in December 2012. “McGovern” (1972), a silkscreen poster for the McGovern campaign, realized $350 at Skinner in Boston in September 2012. An earlier work, “A Poem For Alexander Calder” (1947), an etching in black and sepia tones, exceeded its $2,000 reserve at an auction house in Germany, hitting the hammer at $5,695, suggesting that earlier works are more in demand.
The market for some Calder mobiles has topped more than $1 million with the highest price paid at auction in May 2012 at Christie’s New York. “Lily of Force” (1945), the 91-by-81-by-89-inch metal mobile, painted in shades of white and gray, hit the hammer at $16.5 million, exceeding its reserve of $8 to $12 million and breaking its previous record at the same auction of a smaller mobile that sold for $9.2 million.
In addition to his sculpture work and prints, Calder’s oeuvre includes oil painting and gouache as well as ceramic plates, toys and jewelry. A circa 1940s handmade sterling silver bracelet with repeated spiraling loop design with a twisted wirework double hoop clasp sold at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers of Chicago for $30,000 in September 2012. A handmade sterling silver brooch in the form of a “W” brought down $22,140 at Woodbury Auctions in Connecticut in September 2012. The Alexander Calder Foundation’s website [www.calder.org] features a section with hand-crafted necklaces and bracelets, among other objects, all with the playful abstract designs that are synonymous with Calder.
Another interest on the Foundation’s site is the category called “Unusual Project,” which features “Art Car” (1973), a BMW painted in Calder’s colors and signed AC. Another unusual project is “Flying Colors” (1975), a DC-8 airplane decorated with “specially formulated aerospace paint.”