August 22nd marks what would have been the 117th birthday of famed American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976), an icon of artistic innovation whose striking yet streamlined body of work is perhaps best encapsulated in his own summary: “I paint shapes.” Indeed, Calder’s painted shapes defined a new era of artistic production by advancing the field of kinetic sculpture in the mid-20th century.
Born in Lawton, Pennsylvania, Calder entered the world as the next in line to an already well-established artistic dynasty. His grandfather, Alexander Milne, was a Scottish immigrant whose acclaim won him, among other projects, work on a monumental bronze figure of William Penn that sits perched atop the Philadelphia City Hall. Calder’s father, Alexander Stirling, was a celebrated sculptor who studied under famed American painter Thomas Eakins. Though Calder came from this illustrious lineage, it was clear early on that he would chart his own artistic course. Perhaps an inkling of this innovative spirit was foreshadowed in the unique treasure he gifted his parents for Christmas in 1909: a bent brass representation of a rocking duck, arguably his first kinetic sculpture.
After beginning his studies at New York’s Art Students League in 1923, Calder devoted his attentions to painting, and yet later that decade he transitioned to explorations in sculpture, creating his first wire piece in the spring of 1926. By fall, this interest developed into a full-fledged performance piece, entitled Cirque Calder, a multi-act and multi-media production that even included small-scale mechanical sculpture. This performance, which Calder would continue in different venues over the next several years, celebrated Calder’s specific fascination with the motion of circus performance as translated into his art.
Transforming the ideas behind his circus into more conceptual representation occurred in the 1930s, as Calder began contemplating the exchange of shapes and colors within a work of art similar to the way objects move through space. These ruminations on motion and movement through space coincided with Calder’s development of his iconic mobiles, fantastic assemblies of various, at times, amorphous and, at others, strictly geometric shapes rendered in vibrant hues and suspended seemingly casually from their rotating armatures and extensions. The first exhibition to reference these mobiles occurred in winter of 1932, with the celebration of these installations arriving soon thereafter.
When asked about the meaning of one of his early kinetic works, Two Spheres, Calder replied: “This [piece] has no utility and no meaning. It is simply beautiful. . . . Of course if it meant anything it would be easier to understand but it would not be worthwhile” (as published in the New York World-Telegram, June 1932). It is this approach that resonates throughout Calder’s artistic production over the course of the many years of his career, and it also an essential reason as to why his works are still so beloved today. Their simplicity, combined with their unending balletic move through space, present a constant reminder of the innovative and unsurpassed genius of Alexander Calder.
The upcoming Post War and Contemporary Art auction will feature an Alexander Calder stabile from 1956, Long Brass Tail. It has a presale estimate of $600,000 – 800,000. The stabile, as well as three additional Calder paintings, will be offered at auction September 24 in Chicago. The online catalogue is coming soon.