Alexander Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, the second child in a family of artists. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a sculptor, and his mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, a painter. The family moved often, following the trail of his father’s public art commissions and teaching positions, and young Calder showed his facility with materials early, crafting kinetic animal sculptures and jewelry for his sister’s dolls. “Mother and father were all for my efforts to build things myself—they approved of the homemade. My workshop became some sort of center of attraction; everybody came in.”
Despite his artistic inclinations, for many years he worked adventurous and physical jobs, including a stint as a timekeeper in a Washington State logging camp. In 1922, while serving aboard a ship off Central America, he saw the rising sun and setting moon on opposite horizons, a profound experience that left him with a “lasting sensation” of nature’s magnitudes and movements. By 1923, Calder decided to study art and enrolled in classes at the Art Students League in New York City. In this period he followed the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, sketching scenes on assignment; published his first book, the drawing manual Animal Sketching; and incorporated wire in his sculptural objects.
By 1926, Calder made his way to Paris and set up a studio there by late summer. He began developing his Cirque Calder and expanded upon his invention of wire sculpture, whereby he would essentially “draw in space” three-dimensional figures and personalities of the day. He would remain tied to France for the rest of his life, eventually establishing a studio in Saché in the Loire Valley (now the site of Atelier Calder, which hosts young sculptors in a residency program). He was one of the few American artists in a lively international scene of avant-garde artists that included Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp. His artist friends dubbed him “le roi u fil de fer” (the king of wire). Invited to exhibit often in both Europe and the US, he traversed the Atlantic by boat often; on one of these journeys he met Louisa James (a grandniece of writer Henry James) and the two were married in January 1931. That same year, a significant turning point in Calder’s artistic career occurred when he created his first truly kinetic sculpture and gave form to an entirely new type of art. Many of these early objects moved by motors and were dubbed “mobiles” by Duchamp in fall 1931—in French, mobile refers to both “motion” and “motive.” It was Arp who would supply the name for Calder’s non-kinetic, stationary objects, calling them “stabiles.”
In 1933, Calder and Louisa left France and returned to the United States, where they purchased an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut. Calder converted an icehouse attached to the main house into a studio. Their first daughter, Sandra, was born in 1935, and a second daughter, Mary, followed in 1939. Calder created prolifically during this period, including set pieces for ballet and theatre performances for artists such as Martha Graham and Erik Satie, and later, Burgess Meredith and Joseph Lazzini, among others. During World War II, metal was scarce, and Calder experimented frequently with wood, shards of glass and ceramics, tin cans, and other refuse he found on his Roxbury property, developing some of his most-beloved works, including Fish (1942). Using carved wood and wire, he created another original form of sculpture, called “Constellations” by Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney. From the 1950s onward, Calder increasingly devoted himself to making outdoor sculpture on a grand scale from bolted steel plate. Today, these stately titans grace public plazas in cities throughout the world.
Calder’s later years saw the artist’s legacy fully established, with annual exhibitions and major public commissions around the world. In 1976, he attended the opening of yet another retrospective of his work, Calder’s Universe, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Just a few weeks later, Calder died at the age of seventy-eight, ending a prolific and innovative artistic career that profoundly changed the course of modern art. The Calder Foundation was established in 1987, dedicated to collecting, exhibiting, preserving, and interpreting the art and archives of Alexander Calder. The Foundation has documented his output at more than 22,000 works: an entire universe of art to appreciate for years to come.