Biography - Alexander Calder
Had Roxbury Connecticut's Alexander "Sandy" Calder (1898-1976) assumed a career as toy-maker instead of the most innovative and popular sculptor in American history he likely would have been a fashioner of kites, yo-yos, balsa-wood planes and something like the Slinky. Except that his whimsical models would be of his own invention. For Calder, like most artists to whom history anoints the title of Master, did much more than skillfully follow in the footprints of his forebears and contemporaries. He blazed new trails.
The Pennsylvania born son of two generations of artists and sculptors graduated with a Master of Engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919 and began working at various jobs including drafter, logger and riverboat firefighter. In1923 he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City. In the fall of 1926 he moved to Paris and began producing amusing animates from paper, rags, wire and wood. "Le Cirque Calder," a menagerie of circus figures accompanied by Victrola music and the artist as enigmatic ringmaster soon won the hearts of Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp and other members the French Avant-garde, sending Calder's artistic métier into orbit. "Why must art be so serious?" this rugged new American seemed to ask. It was the first of many questions Calder would ask and then answer.
By 1930 Calder began producing his first purely abstract sculptures. He joined three-dimensional shapes with wire so that they seemed to emanate from space. These he put into motion, first mechanically and then by wind and air alone. Marcel Duchamp coined a new name for the artworks, calling them "mobiles." Later Jean Arp would invent a name for Alexander's works that did not move, calling them "stabiles." When Calder's sculptures made their New York City premiere at a gallery in 1932, a New York Times' critic wrote,
"There is something absolutely new in the sculpture at the Julien Levy Galleries …where "Mobiles" by Alexander Calder were placed on view yesterday … "Mobiles" are abstract sculpture set in motion … The bits of wire, now and then with a colored ball, weave strange patterns when a motor is turned on … Amazing you agree, but is it Art? What is art itself? We seem to have here, somehow, more than just an idle diversion."
Although Calder was breaking new grounds in art he had not yet found a way of breaking records in sales - scratching the pad not once at his New York show.
Calder married Louisa Cushing James in 1931. Two years later they traveled to America and began hunting for a residence that would prove inspirational as both home and workshop - a place where the wind would stir Calder's mobiles and the landscape itself would stir the birth of immense stabiles. When the young couple were shown a spacious dilapidated 18th farmhouse on eighteen acres of rolling land in Roxbury, CT they exclaimed, according to their grandson, "That's it."
Alexander Calder worked in almost every artistic element including painting (primarily gouache work) and drawings. Later in his career, often working with the Segre Iron Works of Waterbury - builder of many of his works - he would become known for his huge arching abstract sculptures that now find habitat in plazas and parks worldwide. One of the most famous is a huge red "Stegosaurus" stabile located adjacent to Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum.
Calder was a tireless worker. Since 1987 the Calder Foundation has documented more than 17,000 of his works for future publication in a catalog raisonne. While the odds of locating a major sculpture is negligible, original Calder art sometimes appears in the form of witty gifts he crafted for his friends and neighbors: Stationary bearing original art, personalized silver and steel jewelry, kitchen utensils spun out of wire, an aluminum bread pan, birds and pull train toys forged from tin cans, andirons, a wood-carved mouse, a flower shaped from pipe cleaners or a dinner bell made by hanging a wire-suspended cork upside down inside a glass bottle.
His friends have described Calder as a curious, quiet, likeable man whose hands and thoughts were always in motion. He was serious about matters of the world and totally devoid of pretensions. His art can be viewed in numerous books and at many museums including the Whitney Museum of Art (NYC) and Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum. In addition to having a flair for new approaches to art, Calder had a flair for art itself. His work is distinctive. After spending a little time the man you'll discover that artist's hand was a fresh and original as his imagination.