Alexander Calder: The Mobilization of Art

American artist Alexander Calder is renowned for his aerial creations and spent a large part of his life in France. A coffee-table book published by Abrams and a retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts both look at the origins of the medium that Calder christened “mobile” on the advice of his friend Marcel Duchamp.
Alexander Calder, Mobile on Two Planes, 1962. © Philippe Migeat/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Calder Foundation, New York/ADAGP, Paris

Calder grew up between Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California, raised by a sculptor and a painter. From the age of eight he spent most of his time working with wood and metal in his basement studio. He collected the “prettiest stuff in the garbage can” to make jewelry for his sister’s dolls, and models of a dog and a duck for his parents.

After school he went on to study engineering in New Jersey, then drawing at the renowned Art Students League in Manhattan. But it was in Paris that Calder became the giant of modern art we know today. He moved to the French capital in 1926 and began working on Cirque Calder, a monumental sculpture of 200 people made with wire, cork, and cloth, which could be moved using wires and pulleys. The resulting dancers, trapeze artists, lion, elephant, and juggling seal demonstrated Calder’s already established passion for movement and performing arts.

Calder and Cirque Calder in Paris, 1930. © 2018 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York/SOCAN, Montréal. Photo George Hoyningen-Huene

In his studio at 14 Rue de la Colonie in the 13th arrondissement, Calder spent time with the artistic avant-garde of the time – Jean Cocteau, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Marcel Duchamp – and sculpted his muses Kiki de Montparnasse and Josephine Baker using steel wire. In 1929 he exhibited his creations in Paris and finished Goldfish Bowl, his first mechanical sculpture. In this work, a handle was used to move two wire fish in an aquarium made using the same material. And with that, Calder had invented the idea of “drawing in space,” a concept he continued to develop throughout his career.

Calder and Duchamp: The Conquest of Space

Around the same time, Calder continued Marcel Duchamp’s work on kinetic art and chronophotography. Using a stroboscope and a camera, he deconstructed the movements of his sculptures. The two artists shared a passion for mathematics, geometry, and physics, and as French essayist Alain Jouffroy put it, their friendship was “four-dimensional.”

Duchamp visited Calder’s studio 1931 and suggested the term “mobile” to describe his aerial creations. And for his static works, German-French artist Jean Arp invented the word “stabile.” These two immediately identifiable forms became Calder’s signature. Throughout his career, the American artist made more than 600 monumental works, including Spiral, exhibited in front of the Parisian headquarters of Unesco, Horizontal, in front of the Pompidou Center, and Trois Pics on the square in front the Grenoble train station.

Alexander Calder, Aluminum Leaves, Red Post, 1941. © 2018 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York/SOCAN, Montréal. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum, New York
Alexander Calder, Performing Seal, 1950. © 2018 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York/SOCAN, Montréal. Photo Nathan Keay, courtesy of MCA Chicago

A large number of Calder’s creations came into being in Saché in Touraine, where he bought a house in 1953. The life-sized versions of the original models were cast at the Biémont iron foundry in Tours, where metallurgists forged, cut, painted, and assembled the different, riveted sheets of steel. Before sending them to Paris, New York, or Los Angeles, the artist first installed his work at his home. Seen from the sky, a herd of huge sculptures in black and red steel appeared to be grazing in the garden behind his house.

Watchmaker of the Wind

Calder tried his hand at everything, as proven by the 22,000 works in his catalogue raisonné. To quote the poet Jacques Prévert, “Chiseler of iron, Watchmaker of the wind, Trainer of black wildcats, Hilarious engineer, Disturbing architect, Sculptor of time, that is Calder.”

The 1965 sculpture La Grande Voile was the first stabile created in France to be installed in the United States. The 30-ton work arrived in Boston by boat, and was put together piece by piece on the MIT campus. Before being exhibited in the open air, Calder’s monumental sculptures were tested in wind tunnels. The Three Disks sculpture (also known as Man) had to resist gusts of up to 125 mph. The test was carried out on the request of the City of Montreal, where the 65-foot stabile was placed on an island in the Saint Lawrence River as part of the 1967 World’s Fair.

Calder’s Three Discs at the Montreal World Fair, 1967. © 2018 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York/SOCAN, Montréal. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa

Calder received the commander insignia for the Order of the Legion of Honor in 1974, and gifted a sculpture to Tours the same year. But the city’s Catholic, conservative mayor refused, having taken a dislike to the artist who opposed the Vietnam War and welcomed Jane Fonda and deserters from the U.S. military to his farm. As a result, Calder installed his Totem in Saché, and the sculpture is still on the village square 43 years after his death. Today, the inhabitants are so used to the work of art they have nicknamed it the “gas pump”!

Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through February 24, 2019.

Book: Alexander Calder, Radical Inventor by Anne Grace and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, 5 Continents Editions, 2018.

Article published in the January 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.