An introduction to the American great who made ‘drawings in space’ and changed our world with his invention of the mobile
It is commonly believed that artist Julio González coined the term ‘drawing in space’ in 1932, when he wrote about Pablo Picasso’s iron sculptures of 1928, which Picasso had adapted from some of his earlier line drawings. Yet in 1929 in one of his first solo exhibitions, held at Galerie Billiet-Pierre Vorms in Paris, Alexander Calder had shown a number of his wire sculptures, which he had begun making in 1926. These were lighter and more ethereal than Picasso’s constructions, and in the French newspaper Paris-Midi an art critic referred to Calder’s objects as ‘drawings in space’. Paul Fierens, writing in the newspaper Journal des Débats, repeated the term shortly afterwards, again in reference to Calder’s wire sculpture.
The idea of a mobile is now so ingrained in the collective imagination that it is difficult to believe there was a time when it did not exist. But before Calder, it didn’t. In 1930, his sculpture evolved from the more figurative into the purely abstract. Intrigued by these newest works, he had the idea of setting them in motion. In 1931, his first mobile was born — an abstract tabletop sculpture whose movement was driven by a motor. Marcel Duchamp christened it a mobile, which means both ’motion’ and ‘motive’ in French. Shortly afterwards Calder developed the mobile as we understand it today: an object that moves on its own, propelled by air currents.
After he heard that Duchamp had dubbed Calder’s moving objects mobiles, their mutual friend, the abstract artist Jean Arp, sardonically asked Calder, ‘Well, what were those things you did last year — stabiles?’ The question, which he asked in reference to the earlier, stationary abstract works that preceded the mobiles, amused Calder, who always enjoyed puns and other plays on words. The name stuck.
In 1929 Abby Aldrich Rockefeller founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was the first of its kind in the United States, and by the 1940s had become one of the country’s most esteemed institutions dedicated to the visual arts. In September 1943, when Calder was just 45 years old, MoMA presented Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions, a career survey of the artist’s work which made him the youngest artist at that point to have been given a retrospective. The show, curated by Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney, proved so popular with audiences that it was extended into 1944, nearly two months after the original scheduled closing date.
In an effort to bring art to a wider population in an accessible way, the N.E.A. began its Art in Public Places programme in the late 1960s. It offered grants to American cities that provided funding for the realisation of public art works. In 1969 the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, formally dedicated Calder’s monumental stabile La Grande Vitesse, the first public work ever to be subsidised in this manner.
Calder was born in Lawnton, a suburb of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on 22 August 1898 — or so he and his family believed. When he was 44 years old, he wrote to Philadelphia City Hall requesting a copy of his birth certificate and was surprised to learn that his birthdate had been recorded in the annals as 22 July 1898. He appealed to the municipality once again, only to receive the same answer. His mother, father and sister, however, remained adamant that Calder’s August birthdate was the correct one.
Calder was from a proud lineage of painters and sculptors. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, was a classical sculptor who was responsible for the famous William Penn statue atop Philadelphia City Hall. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, created the Swann Memorial Fountain, also in Philadelphia, as well as the relief sculpture George Washington at Peace on the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park, New York. Calder’s mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, was a feisty painter who paid her own way through art classes against her family’s will, before meeting and marrying Stirling Calder.
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From a young age Calder showed a proclivity for art, even making two small sculptures, Dog and Duck, from brass sheeting as gifts to his parents in 1909 at the age of 11. The family, who moved frequently throughout Calder’s childhood, always provided him a workshop of his own wherever they were living. Although his becoming an artist might have seemed preordained, as Calder approached high-school graduation his parents discouraged him from an artistic career.
They knew what the struggles of an artist’s life entailed, and wished for their son greater comfort and security. Without much forethought, Calder enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology, graduating in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering. But after several years toiling in a slew of jobs nominally related to his major, he returned to his calling. With the exception of the monumental works of his later years, Calder never again relied on his technical training. All of his sculpture was made through intuitive processes.
During the Second World War Calder worked on behalf of artist friends trapped in Europe, writing letters to the U.S. government in order that they might secure entry into America. He also spent time with returning injured and traumatised soldiers, holding art-making workshops at military hospitals. Later on, Calder and his wife Louisa were vehement protestors against the Vietnam War, attending marches and even taking out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on 2 January 1966. ‘Reason is not treason,’ it proclaimed.
Aside from being briefly associated with the Abstraction-Création group in 1931, early in his career, Calder preferred to remain an individualist. He distanced himself from the declarations and manifestoes others made, insisting his work should not be boxed in. He once reminded the curator James Thrall Soby not to confuse him with ‘the Surrealistes, the neo-romanticists, the concretionists, the automobilistes, or the garagistes’. The tone was amusing, but his message was serious. For an artist whose work defied categorisation, his singularity was most fitting.