American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) had a wide-reaching impact on our cultural landscape, leaving an impression on notable figures such as Albert Einstein and Jean-Paul Sartre. Here’s a look at how his works and ideas have fluently stepped into the twenty-first century.
Looking at a mobile by Alexander Calder is akin to gazing at wavering foliage on a calm summer afternoon. What looks deceptively simple slowly comes alive with an inexhaustible sense of wonder. It’s reported that Albert Einstein once stood enraptured at an exhibition in front of Calder’s mechanized moving sculpture, A Universe (1934), for a full 40 minutes.
One of the most revered American sculptors of the twentieth century, Calder is best known for inventing the mobile—a hanging structure with carefully balanced parts that reacts to air currents. “With his mobiles, he set sculpture in actual motion, engaging intangible substances such as light, gravity, time and sound,” said Gryphon Rue, Calder’s great-grandson, “From the outset, his works had an experiential and perceptual dimension that was far in advance of its time.”
Born to artist parents in Pennsylvania in 1898, Calder trained as a mechanical engineer and worked as an illustrator in New York before he began to create sculptures in the 1920s. After moving to Paris in 1926 to further his studies in art, he became acquainted with many artists from the European avant-garde, including Spanish artist Joan Miró and French painter Fernand Léger. During this period, Calder experimented with wire to create sculptures resembling everything from human figures to entire tableaux.
“Beginning with his wire sculptures—transparent, massless objects that transformed a utilitarian material into fine art—Calder overturned the tradition of sculpting in bronze and marble,” explained Rue. These three-dimensional “drawings in space”—as critics described them—were bent and twisted by Calder himself (with his bare hands or pliers) and embodied a dynamism that animated the space around them.
From there, Calder’s interest in capturing movement continued to develop. Using a range of found materials, the artist went on to create one of his most beloved pieces: Cirque Calder (1926-31), an unassuming mechanized miniature circus that he performed for an audience. Among those who came to see the shows were Miró, Léger, Man Ray, Jean Arp and Piet Mondrian. “Each performance was unique, immersing audiences in a live experience of failures and fulfillments that provoked anticipation, suspense and release,” explained Rue.
A visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930 marked Calder’s shift towards abstract compositions. Inspired by the Dutch painter’s workspace and the colored cardboard rectangles tacked onto the wall, Calder suggested that it would be interesting to create abstract forms that moved. Mondrian disagreed. For Calder, this visit set his ideas on abstraction in motion and led to the creation of his first kinetic sculpture made of abstract elements. “It’s hard to imagine the critical indignation and skepticism his kinetic works initially received—they were judged as literally being outside the category of art,” said Rue, who is curating an exhibition opening in March 2017 that explores abstraction in contemporary life and includes one of Calder’s rarely seen noise-making mobiles.
When French artist Marcel Duchamp saw Calder’s moving pieces in Paris in 1931, he coined the term “mobile” to describe these works—a word that means both “motion” and “motive” in French. By fusing movement, color and play into a traditionally static medium, Calder redefined what sculpture was and what it could be. At first glance, many of his mobiles look modest and simple. But after further examination, it’s clear that their delicately balanced designs have been engineered with meticulous precision. From the feathery lightness of metal forms to the poetic links between elements, there’s an aura of interconnectedness that emanates from Calder’s mobiles. A kind of slowing down is required to become acutely aware of how you’re engaging with the piece and creating chance motions.
On experiencing Calder’s mobiles, prominent French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said: “The forces at work are too numerous and complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to be able to foresee all their combinations. For each of them Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it: time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance.”
As Calder continued to evolve as an artist and his international recognition steadily grew throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, his oeuvre also expanded. He created static “stabile” sculptures and paintings and incorporated more sound into his work. He also took on commissions for large-scale outdoor sculptures for cities around the world. With an impressive output of over 22,000 pieces, Calder’s hands—like his mobiles—seemed to be in constant motion.
Whether it was a monumental installation for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games or a jewelry piece for the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, Calder’s works exemplified his lifelong fascination with the relationship between an object and the elusive invisible forces in its environment. “One main ingredient of my great-grandfather’s legacy is in the structural and performance-based idea of open form,” said Rue, “In the post-World War II era, the mobile anticipated an opening-up of formal systems across the fine arts.”
According to Rue, Léger called Calder a realist at one point, an epithet Calder agreed with, saying, “If you can imagine a thing, conjure it up in space—then you can make it, and tout de suite you’re a realist. The universe is real but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.”
Gryphon Rue is a songwriter, producer, and curator based in New York. His forthcoming exhibition, Strange Attractor, is on display at the Ballroom Marfa from March 10th through August 6th, 2017.