Alexander Calder was born July 22, 1898, in Lawnton, Pennsylvania. Despite coming from a family of artists -his father was a sculptor and his mother a painter- Calder did not originally intend to become an artist. After high school, he enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology and graduated in 1919 with a degree in engineering. He worked as a hydraulic and automotive engineer, timekeeper in a logging camp, and fireman in a ship's boiler room. While serving in the latter occupation, on a ship from New York bound for San Francisco, Calder awoke on the deck to see both a sunrise and a full moon. This image remained with Calder, and would later appear in several of his works.
Calder pursued art shortly thereafter. In 1923, he moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students' League. He also took a job illustrating for the National Police Gazette, which sent him to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to sketch circus scenes for two weeks in 1925. The circus became a lifelong interest of Calder's, and after moving to Paris in 1926, he created the Cirque Calder, a complex and unique body of art. The assemblage included diminutive performers, animals, and props he had observed at the Ringling Brothers Circus. Fashioned from wire, leather, cloth, and other found materials, the Cirque was designed to be manipulated manually by Calder himself. The work predated the modern notion of performance art by nearly forty years.
Calder developed working with wire in later works. It was from wire that he soon began to sculpt portraits of his friends and public figures of his day. His first solo gallery whow was in 1928 at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. He soon exhibited in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere, and met such artists as Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, James Johnson Sweeney, Marcel Duchamp, and Piet Mondrian. Calder later claimed that it was meeting Mondrian and seeing his geometric painting and collages that "shocked" him toward total abstraction. He thereafter delved into abstraction, and in the fall of 1931 created a series of objects that were moved by systems of cranks and motors. Marcel Duchamp called these objects 'mobiles.' Calder later eliminated the mechanical elements of these works when he realized mobiles could move autonomously via the air's currents. It was in Paris that he also met the renowned printmaker Stanley William Hayter. While Calder is known for his sculpture, he was also talented painter, engraver, and printmaker. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Calder produced gouache paintings depicting the same swirling, abstract forms found in his mobiles. Numerous lithographs were produced from these paintings.
In 1933, Calder left France and returned to the United States, buying a farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut and turning it into a studio. He also attempted large, outdoor sculptures in that decade. In 1937, Calder created his first large bolted stabile fashioned entirely from sheet metal, which was titled Devilfish. After its exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, Calder soon received commissions for works to be exhibited at the Parisian World Fair and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1945, he made a series of small-scale works. Duchamp saw these works while visiting Calder's studio. Inspired by the notion of art objects that could be easily dismantled, mailed to Europe, and re-assembled for an exhibition, Duchamp planned a Calder show at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris. The renowned French author Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his now-famous essay on Calder's mobiles for the exhibition catalogue. Galerie Maeght in Paris held a Calder show in 1950, and subsequently became his exclusive dealer in France.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York held a retrospective for Calder in 1964, and Fondation Maeght, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, held its own retrospective in 1969. Calder died on November 11, 1976 in New York.
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