Alexander Calder brought a rare combination of poetry and play to the realm of art. He is perhaps most famous for his Mobiles, works which include moving parts and that often hang from ceilings, occupying a space hitherto not occupied by sculpture.
Calder was a third-generation American sculptor: his father and grandfather were both involved in a number of statues in Philadelphia, as well as other works. However, Calder worked in a very different tradition. When he entered the realm of sculpture, initially he used his mechanical savvy to create a range of toys, culminating in his famous circus. This was a miniature affair of immense genius, featuring trapeze artists, lions and sword swallowers, among other things. Calder would operate these figures in performances which became a sensation within certain circles when he was in Paris during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The circus is now in the Whitney Museum of American Art. Calder also created an impressive array of portraits and sculptures using wire as a medium, bending it to his desire.
This fascination with toys came into its own after a revelation. Calder was visiting the Paris studio of his friend, Piet Mondrian, the Dutch artist, when he commented on the pieces of coloured card that were adorning the walls. Calder suggested that the colour fields would be improved if they were moving. Mondrian insisted that his pictures were already fast enough. Calder was undeterred, and created his first Mobiles, which resembled astrolabes with moving areas of colour. Some of the early examples were mechanised, yet soon they were made to work responding to wind or touch, relying on the engineer’s understanding of balance to result in compositions that are often complex and intricate yet infinitely beguiling. The name ‘mobile’ was given by his friend Marcel Duchamp; in a characteristic play on words, it also means ‘motive’ in French.
Calder was associated with Surrealism, and in particular with his friend Joan Miró. Unlike so many of the artists whose careers blossomed after the Second World War, Calder eschewed any of the wallowing in angst and anxiety that became so prominent. Instead, he created a magical world of movement, of wild characters and of immense lyricism. His outlook was remarkably positive. Indeed, asked if he ever felt sad, he simply replied: ‘No. I don’t have the time. When I think I might start to, I fall asleep. I conserve energy that way.’ In the post-war years, Calder lived between France and the United States, although he travelled widely. An inveterate tinkerer, he constantly made his Mobiles as well as static sculptures such as his Stabiles, Crags and Critters. In addition, he was a skilled draughtsman and colourist and also created inventive jewellery – when Peggy Guggenheim opened her New York gallery, one of her earrings was by Yves Tanguy, the other a miniature Mobile by Calder.