Written for Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services for Private Collection 1 September 1998.
Mobile with red, yellow and white disk stabile, 8’ x 9’ x 11’, 1953
Lithograph in colors. Edition 57/125.
25 1/2 x 20 inches, 1970’s
One of the most playfully famous artists in history, Alexander Calder brought new meaning to the arena of sculpture as much as he reinforced the notion of the American as adventuresome, friendly, quirky inventor. Certainly among America’s most famous sculptors, Calder’s transatlantic relations with the European as well as American avant-garde, not to mention his witty humor and formidable dancing skills, made Calder a figure whose unique creative vision, social and family life were equally important to those who had the honor of experiencing this creator’s vital energy.
Calder was no stranger to the calling that would make him one of the most recognizable sculptors of the twentieth century. Not unlike the Peales and Wyeths, Calder came from a family of artists. His grandfather and father were sculptors and his mother was a painter. His parents and grandfather embraced the classic styles, Calder recalled with merry disdain ‘the bore’ of sitting as a model for his parents’ respective creations. The apple did not fall far from the tree, however. Calder Senior awarded his young son small workshops wherever possible, depending upon the space available at any of the several dozen spots the family called home during Alexander Calder’s formative years. Calder was given free reign and guidance when necessary to create whatever he saw fit, which put him quickly on the path to realizing his visions and passions.
After graduating from New Jersey’s Stephens University in 1918 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Calder held miscellaneous and unrewarding jobs until the need to create brought him back to New York and the Art Students League in 1922. After several years studying and working odd jobs, which included some illustration commissions, Calder made his way to Paris in 1926.
Calder’s love affair with Paris and its many inspirations never dimmed throughout the sculptor’s career. He and his wife Louisa, whom he married in 1931, and their four children would come to share a family passion for France, eventually buying a house in Sache in 1953. Between 1926 and 1933, Calder lived mostly in Paris, commuting and in some cases living back in New York when creative and business opportunities presented themselves. Calder’s charm, creative intensity and ability to maximize the experience of the moment quickly captured the hearts and minds of those around him. This good natured, fun loving way about Calder, expressed fully through his first original wire and wood sculptures, which included a miniature circus that Calder made and would entertain with, allowed the young artist access into the upper echelons of the Parisian art world.
The significant studio visit of his career came the week after Calder performed his “circus” during the summer of 1930. Mondrian enjoyed himself in the audience of forty or so, and a mutual friend arranged for Calder to meet the older painter. The visit proved to Calder that Mondrian’s reputation as quirky, eccentric intellectual was accurate, but most importantly that Mondrian was also quite a genius. Thoroughly inspired by these revolutionary abstractions, Calder would use Mondrian’s painting as a springboard to evolve an original philosophy of expression that very quickly distinguished itself from anything that had ever been made before.
Calder suggested during his first visit that it might be “fun to make the rectangles oscillate,” to which Mondrian replied, “No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast.” Interestingly enough, the viewer can always see the fresh and original nature of Calder’s oscillating line. Mondrian’s work impressed upon Calder the desire to facilitate primary colors in an eternal effort to balance the line in a nonobjective compositional creation. The Untitled lithograph in colors from the 1970’s represents Calder’s two-dimensional mastery of these principles. Utilizing his typical primary color palette, the artist effortlessly harmonizes line, color and composition, gliding and dancing colors around the axis of a single black brushstroke. Rarely one to discuss his creative process or output, Calder did often refer to the perfection of the universe and its rhythmic motion of planets and stars. There is something fundamentally organic in Calder’s work, the freedom with which lines are cast forth in a universe that finds rhythm everywhere. Calder’s circular and organic expression constrasts starkly with the rigid, gridlike coolness associated with Mondrian’s squares and rectangles. Much as the two creators are always reconciled by the primary color palette and consistently ingenius compositions, Calder’s warmth sparked the fire of friendship in Mondrian that would last a lifetime.
Mondrian, of course, was not the only European to influence Calder as he continued to hone his unique brand of abstraction. Well respected as the friendly, creative American that he was, Calder’s miniature circus managed to attract artists and thinkers alike. The show was spontaneous, exciting, entertaining, and set the stage for a number of creative dialogues that Calder would nurture into lasting friendships. His first shows in New York and Paris between 1928 and 1930 featured wooden and wire sculptures of animals and portraits of his friends. Once Calder ventured into the nonobjective realm with a series of wire constructions which reinforced his commitment to abstraction, he was invited to join the “Abstraction-Creation” group, an offer he accepted quickly. Calder forged friendships with the likes of Miro and Leger, whose abstracted figures share some sort of visual kinship with both Mondrian and Calder. Marcel Duchamp, one of the most notable artists of the twentieth century, remembered more for the contagious fertility of his ideas than by his limited visual output, lent his brilliance to Calder’s cause by declaring the new motorized and suspended sculptures of 1931 “Mobiles”. Jean Arp responded in the same year that if the hanging and moving works were “Mobiles”, then Calder’s sculptures that were fixed in space must be called “Stabiles”. Never one to deny a decent suggestion, Calder happily retained and applied the terms “Mobile” and “Stabile” to his ever expanding artistic vocabulary.
Openly declaring that he had originally hoped to create “floating Mondrians”, or four-dimensional drawings, Alexander Calder’s worldwide reputation rests primarily on his establishment of “Kinetic Art”, work that incorporates movement into the life of a sculpture. As early as 1926, Calder’s first wire sculptures moved with the gentle breeze blowing through a room, and Calder’s obsession with moving sculpture is epitomized in his Untitled Mobile of 1953. The black base, which resembles the prototypical form of Calder’s freestanding Stabiles, serves to float the red, white and yellow circles delicately in space. The fusion of technical superiority meshed with boundless creativity is one of the most striking elements in Calder’s work. Carefully organized to freely associate in an organic yet structured quasi-universe, the delicate balance of line, color and form in Calder’s work serves to illuminate and reconcile both the spiritual and formal elements of creativity which often find little room for one another. Deftly balancing creative genius with a prolific and healthy family life, Alexander Calder’s warm yet driving vision serves to reinforce the very best of humanity and its continued commitment to creative achievement.