‘Why must art be static?’ asked American-born sculptor Alexander Calder in 1932, the same year he exhibited his first now-iconic mobiles. ‘The next step in sculpture is motion.’ Masterpieces of abstraction and the first works of Kinetic Art, Calder’s revolutionary hanging sculptures, gently pivoted by the vagaries of the wind, had a profound effect on the development of modern sculpture. Together with his printmaking, painting, drawing and non-moving ‘stabile’ sculptures, Calder’s mobiles form a body of work now considered among the most important and valuable in 20th-century art.
Born in Philadelphia and trained at the Art Student League in New York, Calder began his career as an illustrator, sketching sporting events and circus scenes for magazines. Drawing, printmaking and painting would remain an important facet of his work but by 1926, now dividing his time between New York and Paris, he had begun making animated toys and curious wire-and-wood figurines. Many of these would become Calder’s Circus (1926-32), a surrealist toy circus, performances of which earned Calder a following among the luminaries of Dadaism and Surrealism, many of whom, including Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miró, would remain champions and lifelong friends.
In 1930, a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio had a profound impact on the direction of Calder’s work. The playful figuration of his early Surrealist toys and sculptures gave way, not only to overt abstraction, but also to the colour and a draughtsman-like use of wire exampled in early pieces like Croisière (1931) and Mobile (c.1932). Over the following decades Calder would continue to explore his method of abstraction, finessing his mobiles and stabiles.
As his reputation grew, he began to receive public commissions on a monumental scale. His mobile .125 (1957) in New York’s JFK airport and the colossal stabile Flamingo (1973), at Federal Center Plaza in Chicago, are vast works of public art. Yet they still contain all the wit and charm of the young Calder whose early career was spent making mechanical toys for his celebrated Surrealist circus.
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