Alexander Calder was an American sculptor known as the originator of the mobile, a type of moving sculpture made with delicately balanced or suspended shapes that move in response to touch or air currents. Calder’s monumental stationary sculptures are called stabiles. He also produced wire figures, which are like drawings made in space, and notably a miniature circus work that was performed by the artist.
Calder comes from a family of artists. His grandfather Alexander Milne Calder, was born in Scotland and immigrated to Philadelphia. He is best known for the colossal statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia City Hall's tower. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a well-known sculptor who created many public installations, a majority of them in nearby Philadelphia. Calder's mother was a professional portrait artist, who had studied at the Académie Julian and the Sorbonne in Paris from around 1888 until 1893.
He made his first sculpture aged 4, a clay elephant. Calder's parents did not want him to suffer the life of an artist, so he decided to study mechanical engineering and excelled in mathematics. Calder received a degree in 1919. For the next several years, he held a variety of jobs, including working as a hydraulic engineer and a draughtsman for the New York Edison Company.
In 1922, Calder moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League. In 1926, he moved to Paris, enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and established a studio at 22, rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse Quarter. He started to make mechanical toys. At the urging of fellow sculptor Jose de Creeft, he submitted them to the Salon des Humoristes. Calder began to create his Cirque Calder, a miniature circus fashioned from wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork, and other found objects. Designed to be transportable the circus was presented on both sides of the Atlantic. Soon, his Cirque Calder became popular with the Parisian avant-garde. A visit to Piet Mondrian 's studio in 1930, where he was impressed by the environment-as-installation, "shocked" him into fully embracing abstract art, toward which he had already been tending.
Dating from 1931, Calder’s sculptures of discrete movable parts powered by motors were christened “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp. By 1932, he moved on to hanging sculptures which derived their motion from touch or the air currents in the room. They were followed in 1934 by outdoor pieces which were set in motion by the open air. At the same time, Calder was also experimenting with self-supporting, static, abstract sculptures, dubbed "stabiles" by Jean Arp to differentiate them from mobiles. In 1935-1936 he produced a number of works made largely of carved wood. In 1937, at Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, the Spanish pavilion included Alexander Calder's sculpture Mercury Fountain.
In June 1929, while traveling by boat from Paris to New York, Calder met his future wife, Louisa James, grandniece of author Henry James and philosopher William James. They married in 1931. During World War II, Calder attempted to join the Marines as a camofleur, but was rejected. He continued to sculpt, adapting to a scarcity of aluminum during the war by returning to carved wood in a new open form of sculpture called "constellations."
In the 1950s, Calder increasingly concentrated his efforts on producing monumental sculptures (his self-described period of "agrandissements"). Notable examples are 125 for JFK Airport in 1957, Spirale for UNESCO in Paris 1958 and Trois disques, commissioned for Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. Calder's largest sculpture at 25.7 meters high was El Sol Rojo, constructed outside the Aztec Stadium for the 1968 Summer Olympics "Cultural Olympiad" events in Mexico City.
In 1963, Calder settled into his new workshop, which overlooked the valley of the Lower Chevrière to Saché in Indre-et-Loire (France). Throughout his artistic career, Calder named many of his works in French, regardless of where they were destined for eventual display. In addition to sculptures, Calder painted throughout his career, beginning in the early 1920s. He picked up his study of printmaking in 1925, and continued to produce illustrations for books and journals. In 1966, Calder published his Autobiography with Pictures with the help of his son-in-law, Jean Davidson.
Calder died unexpectedly on November 11, 1976, shortly after the opening of a major retrospective show at the Whitney Museum in New York. In 1987, the Calder Foundation was established by Calder's family.