Alexander or “Sandy” Calder was born in 1898, in Lawnton, Pennsylvania to a family of artists. His father Alexander Stirling Calder was a prominent sculptor who created many public sculptures in the Philadelphia area. Calder’s mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, was a professional portrait painter who studied art in Paris before moving to Philadelphia where she met and married Calder.
In 1902, at the age of four, Alexander completed his first sculpture–a clay elephant. In 1909, when he was in the fourth grade, Sandy sculpted a dog and a duck from a sheet of brass. The duck, which could rock back and forth, is one of his earliest examples of his interest in kinetic (moving) sculpture.
Although Calder’s parents were always very supportive of Alexander’s creativity, they discouraged their children from becoming artists, as the life of an artist is often uncertain and financially difficult. In 1915, following his parents advice, Calder decided to study mechanical engineering, and enrolled in the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Four years later he received his degree. However his interest in art never left him. Though he had tried to please his parents by becoming an engineer, he ultimately decided to pursue a career in art instead.
In 1923 Calder began attending the Art Students’ League in New York. While attending this school he also worked as a freelance artist for the National Police Gazette. For one of his assignments he spent two weeks sketching scenes from the Ringling Brother’s and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This project marked the beginning of his fascination with the circus.
In 1926 Calder moved to Paris where he began to build toys that moved. Eventually his collection of toys became a miniature circus which performed in the USA and Europe. He created his Cirque Calder from wire, string, rubber, cloth, and other found objects. He designed it to fit into a suitcase (eventually growing to 5 suitcases) that could be taken anywhere for impromptu performances.
Through his circus, he developed an interesting medium, using wire to create 3 dimensional portraits and other pictures. In 1929, Calder had his first solo show of wire sculpture, in Paris at Galerie Billiet. There are several anecdotes of Alexander always walking around with pliers and a roll of wire in his pocket. He would make portraits for guests at a party and once showed up to a gallery showing with nothing ready, but his pliers and wire in tow. He then made the works to cover the walls and start the show.
Calder’s interest in kinetic art led him to create the first mobiles. By the end of 1931, he moved on to more delicate sculptures which derived their motion from the air currents in the room, using cutout shapes reminiscent of natural forms (birds, fish, falling leaves). He also created giant scale “stabiles” (sculptures that don’t move) that can be found across the country, most are giant, many several stories tall. He created these out of steel sheeting and hand painted them in bright primary colors. Almost all of his work is done in limited colors: red, black, white, yellow, and blue.
Alexander Calder died on November 11, 1976 in New York. While he is most remembered for inventing the mobile, Calder was an incredibly diverse artist. From toys and wire and painting on canvas, to his most famous works of delicate mobiles and massive stabiles, his vision was clear and distinct even though the medium varied greatly.
Today we will create our own mobiles and stabiles. Use the pipe cleaners as the structural support and add interest with the fun foam and beads. There will be an example on the cart that draws inspiration from Calder’s work, balancing a larger object on one side of the mobile with several smaller ones. Show them how they balance and can move around with the air currents. Mobiles are common today, but imagine seeing these for the first time in the 1930’s when Alexander Calder first started creating them! There aren’t a lot of instructions. This project is very much up to the students! Just experiment and have fun!
Also for fun, I will have a few wire sculpture on the cart similar to Calder’s. I think they make much more of an impression than pictures of his actual wire sculptures do. Enjoy! Calder is one of my very favorite artists, I think he is so fun and unique!