Alexander Calder made play the major theme of his art. Over the course of more than fifty years, he worked harder than most in the pursuit of the creation of his own universe, invented a whole new genre, an art of moving sculpture known as ‘mobiles,’ and made works on an unsurpassed scale. But he was also an incredibly interesting character, a man who had a childlike view of life which translated seamlessly into his work.
Calder had sculpture in his blood. His father was also a sculptor and many of his ancestors had been stone masons. He was not that interested in becoming an artist at firs however. He loved to work with his hands and went on to go to school to become an engineer. He didn’t do well in the program and decided to become an artist after all.
When he began his career, he worked primarily in wire, sculpting portraits and images of animals that resembled abstract line drawings but in three-dimensions. He could create whole exhibition on the spot with just wire and some pliers. He was always interested in sculptural materials uncommon or unknown to the genre including scrap iron, found stones, broken glass, even mercury. He was capable of building sculptures on almost any scale from gargantuan behemoths to tiny fragile works.
Early on, during the 1920′s, Calder began making extended trips to Paris. Here he became a part of the booming art scene. At this time, he built a fully-functional miniature circus out of wire and refuse. He performed the circus for art-world friends who came to see it on a regular basis. The circus highlighted his lifelong fascination with toys and childlike objects and was an early example of a moving sculpture.
Shortly after the notoriety of his circus, Calder began to experiment with abstract moving sculptures. He went to the studio of Piet Mondrian and was amazed at the sense of motion that could be conveyed through abstract shapes. Calder’s early moving works were controlled by motors. Marcel Duchamp called them ‘mobiles’ and the name stuck. From this point, he was obsessed with the cosmos and it became a major theme of many of his sculptors. During an early Paris exhibition of Calder’s mechanical mobiles, physicist Albert Einstein visited and was reportedly fascinated by one of the sculptures, A Universe, and stared at it for forty minutes.
After building a few of these mechanized works Calder decided to move to works that would be based out of a more natural idea of chance instead of out of mechanical predetermination. Chance allowed for infinite movement and combinations between elements within the work. Movement was thus dictated by other natural forces such as air currents in a room or wind outside. He wanted to get rid of symmetry in order to create more tension and visual interest. Many of his artworks involve color, but color was secondary to shape and movement, mostly acting as a differentiation mechanism between different elements of the sculptures.
Despite their references to the mechanics of the universe, Calder’s works were not overly serious but playful and childlike. They approached existence as someone viewing it from the naïve eye of a child, with a child’s attitude of fun. Perhaps that is why the mobile has become such a favorite toy for babies and young children. The sculptures were simple. They were the thing in itself. Nothing lay beyond the works besides his interest in nature through allusions, materials, and natural forms.
In addition to mobiles, Calder invented a type of sculpture ironically dubbed ‘stabiles.’ Although these sculptures did not move, they seemed to imply a sense of movement through their design. They were often very large but appeared quite light as though they were liable to float off at any minute. Stabiles recalled architecture in their concrete yet airy design, for instance the solidly buttressed medieval cathedrals of France.
Sculpture was not the only genre Calder worked in. He painted, created stage sets, designed illustrations and wallpaper, tapestries and rugs, children’s toys and jewelry. He never stopped creating, working every day, and made or manufactured a reported 16,000 works.
Calder worked primarily in assembling sculptures from wire and scrap metal. He didn’t like carving because he often grew impatient. When creating one of his large-scale sculptures, he would start with a small model made of aluminum, which he would alter freely. When he had finished the model he would bring it to workers who would fabricate it on a larger scale. He would then make particular alterations he thought would improve the final sculpture.
Calder’s studio was notoriously messy, with wire, metal, refuse, tools, sculptures, and papers everywhere. He designed everything that went into his house including cooking tools and decoration. He even made alterations to his cars. In this way he created his own world, shaping it with his hands. This extended to friends and relatives as well. He spent a lot of his time fixing up their houses for them.
Calder was incredibly unpretentious about his sculptures. He never called his them works of art, preferring the term objects. When asked who he intended his sculptures for, he replied that he didn’t do it for anyone in particular. He worked and that was all. When asked if he liked his contemporaries, he responded “yes, but they are all idiots.” When he was asked if he liked the Louvre, he responded “the courtyard is nice. It is well tarred.”
Calder had quite a gregarious and silly personality and was physically big, especially in later years, like a friendly bear. He spoke simply and plainly. He ate and drank excessively. He didn’t care for decorum and dressed in informal wool shirts for every social function. He was also extremely generous, giving gifts of art to many of his friends and acquaintances.
Despite his simplicity and over-the-top personality, Calder was in no way stupid. He understood the importance of his work at a very basic level and spoke and wrote about it with great depth and articulateness. He was also usually paying attention even when it seemed he was not. He took naps on Parisian bistro tables but was only half asleep. He was able to pick up the conversations around him and upon awakening could pick them up in the middle.
Alexander Calder was an important artist because he brought a certain playful energy, lack of pretension, and reverence for nature into modernism at time when many modern artists were often quite pretentious and over-serious about their work and no longer considered nature an acceptable subject matter for art. It is amazing that Calder was able to use synthetic materials to create such natural primordial forms, so full of spontaneity, and that had the facility to create such joy in those that viewed them. It is also fascinating how his own personality and attitude towards life was aligned with the work he created, making the two basically inseparable.
Calder’s work is so iconic that it led the term ‘mobile’ which has become to become a ubiquitous part of everyday life outside the realm of art. His sculptures are immediately and universally recognizable as his own. How many artists can claim that kind of revolutionary inventiveness, that kind of cultural clout, or staying power? Calder is a great oasis, a break in the desert of super-pretentious over-intellectual modern art. In this way, he is an invaluable figure and not one to be discounted or downplayed in importance.