Life of Alexander Calder, Sculptor Who Reimagined Mobiles

Artist Alexander Calder
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Alexander Calder (July 22, 1898 – November 11, 1976) was one of the most prolific, recognizable, and beloved American artists of the 20th century. He was a pioneer of kinetic sculpture or mobiles: works with discreet moving parts. He also created a wide range of monumental metal sculptures that have become practically inextricable from the cities and locations that host them. As a singular artist, Calder declined to be identified with any specific art movements, and he received recognition for the idiosyncratic nature of his work.

Early Life and Education

Alexander Calder showing his work
Bettmann / Getty Images

Born to parents who were both artists, young Alexander Calder was always encouraged to create. He had his first workshop at age eight. His father and grandfather were both sculptors who received public commissions. Alexander Milne Calder, his grandfather, is best known for sculpting the statue of William Penn that tops the Philadelphia City Hall. Calder's mother was a portrait artist who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Because his father received multiple public commissions, Alexander Calder frequently moved as a child. During his high school years, he moved back and forth from New York City to California. At the end of his senior year, Calder's parents moved to New York City while he stayed with friends in San Francisco to graduate from high school there.

Despite his background, at the urging of his parents, Alexander Calder pursued college education outside of the arts. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919. However, an experience working on a passenger ship in 1922 changed the course of Calder's life. He awoke one morning off the coast of Guatemala witnessing simultaneously the sun rising and the moon setting on opposite horizons. By 1923, he moved back to New York and enrolled in classes at the Art Students League.

Kinetic Sculptures

Alexander Calder mobile
Untitled aluminum and steel mobile hangs overhead at the National Gallery of Art East Building, Washington, D.C. Robert Alexander / Getty Images

In 1925, while working for the National Police Gazette, Alexander Calder was sent to sketch scenes of the Ringling Brothers Circus for two weeks. He fell in love with the circus, and it influenced his work for the rest of his life. Calder created an elaborate collection of circus figures sculpted from wire, wood, cloth, and other found objects. In the late 1920s, he used the small sculptures as part of "performances" that could last up to two hours. His efforts are now recognized as a very early type of performance art.

While befriending other major 20th century artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, and Fernand Leger, Calder began to develop abstract sculptures with discrete movable parts. Marcel Duchamp called them "mobiles" and the name stuck. His sculptures without movement were later called "stabiles." Alexander Calder said an experience viewing Piet Mondrian's abstract work with colored paper rectangles "shocked" him into working in complete abstraction.

Calder was the subject of his first major retrospective exhibition in 1943 at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was the youngest artist to be honored in that fashion. Marcel Duchamp was one of the curators. During the World War II years, a shortage of metal resulted in Calder working extensively with wood. In 1949, he created his largest mobile to date, International Mobile for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It measures 16' x 16'.

Monumental Public Sculptures

Alexander Calder sculpture Flamingo
Flamingo (1973), Chicago, Illinois. Bettmann / Getty Images

Beginning in the 1950s, Alexander Calder focused much of his career on massive public sculptures. One of the first of these was the 45-foot-wide mobile .125 for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City installed in 1957. The 1969 La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the first public art installation funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1974, Calder unveiled two massive works in Chicago, Flamingo on the Federal Plaza and Universe in the Sears Tower.

To create the monumental works, Alexander Calder began with a small model of the sculpture and then used a grid to reproduce the piece on a large scale. He closely supervised the engineers and technicians who rendered his works in durable metal.

One of Calder's final works was the 75' high sheet metal sculpture Mountains and Clouds designed for the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. He created a 20-inch model that was accepted for construction in April 1976, six months before the artist's death. The final sculpture was not completed until 1986.

Additional Works

Alexander Calder painted airplane
Painted Airplane. Patrick Grehan / Corbis Historical

Beyond sculpture, Alexander Calder worked on a wide range of additional artistic projects. In the 1930s, he created scenery and backdrops for a dozen stage productions including ballet and opera.  Calder worked in painting and printmaking throughout his career. In the late 1960s, he created prints to protest the Vietnam War.

One of Calder's most celebrated projects outside of sculpture was a 1973 commission from Braniff International Airways to paint one of their jets. The airplane was called Flying Colors. Two years later, Braniff commissioned Calder to paint another jet for the U.S. Bicentennial. It was called Flying Colors of the United States.

Alexander Calder is known to have produced more than 2,000 pieces of jewelry during his lifetime. A distinctive aspect of his jewelry is the lack of solder when connecting pieces of metal. Instead, he used wired loops or metal rivets. Among the recipients of custom jewelry designs were artist Georgia O'Keeffe and legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim.

Later Life and Legacy

Alexander Calder
Bettmann / Getty Images

Alexander Calder published an autobiography in 1966. His later years included multiple retrospective exhibitions and widespread public recognition. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago held a major retrospective in 1974. In 1976, Alexander Calder attended the opening of the retrospective Calder's Universe at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. A few weeks later he died at age 78.

Calder earned acclaim as one of the most prolific major artists of the twentieth century. He pioneered the concept of kinetic sculptures with movable parts. His whimsical, abstract style is one of the most immediately recognizable among American artists.

Alexander Calder was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously two weeks after his death after refusing it himself in the last year of his life. His family refused to attend the ceremony in protest against the lack of amnesty for Vietnam War draft resisters.

Personal Life

Alexander Calder and wife Louisa
Alexander and Louisa Calder. Photo by Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Alexander Calder met Louisa James, grand-niece of the American novelist Henry James, on board a steamship. They married in January 1931. ​Their daughter Sandra was born in 1935. A second daughter Mary was born in 1939.​​ Louisa Calder died in 1996 at age 91.​

Alexander Calder Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Alexander Calder
  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: July 22, 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, U.S.
  • Died: November 11, 1976 in New York, New York, U.S.
  • Education: Stevens Institute of Technology, Art Students League of New York
  • Selected Works: .125 (1957), Flying Colors (1973), Flamingo (1974), Mountains and Clouds (1986)
  • Key Accomplishment: United Nations Peace Medal (1975)
  • Famous Quote: "To an engineer, good enough is perfect. With an artist, there's no such thing as perfect."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. Alexander Calder 1898-1976. Taschen, 2002.
  • Calder, Alexander. An Autobiography with Pictures. Pantheon, 1966.
  • Prather, Marla. Alexander Calder 1898-1976. National Gallery of Art, 1998.