‘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.’ Calder’s revolutionary hanging sculptures had a profound effect on the development of modern sculpture. Masterpieces of abstraction, they were the first works of Kinetic Art. 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.
Calder was born in Philadelphia in 1898 and trained at the Art Student League in New York. He 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. 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. These performances earned Calder a following among the luminaries of Dadaism and Surrealism. Many, 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 draughtsman-like use of wire seen 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. He was also a prolific jewellery maker, crafting exquisite three-dimensional necklaces and bracelets.
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 who spent his early career making mechanical toys for his Surrealist circus. Calder died in New York in 1976.