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The Greatest Show on Earth: The Art of Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder was an artistic jack of all trades. He worked in metal from jewelry to large-scale public sculpture; he painted in oils, watercolor, and gouache; was a theatrical set designer; and he was also a successful lithographer. What makes Calder so compelling in every medium is his wit and energy. His bright palettes and simple shapes visually bounce off of one another like an exuberant dance, and his child-like circus subjects capture all of the wonder and joy of the big top.

Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976)
Self Portrait, c. 1924, oil on canvas.
Sold for: $55,350

Though born into a family of artists, Calder initially rejected an artistic career, choosing instead to study mechanical engineering. Ultimately, he conceded to his artistic roots and enrolled in the Art Students League in New York in 1923. He studied under John Sloan, George Luks, and Boardman Robinson. Calder credited  Robinson with teaching him to draw figures in a single line. This skill led Calder to his first job as an illustrator for The National Police Gazette. In 1925 The Gazette, assigned him to cover the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York. He was so intrigued with the dynamism of the show, that he followed the circus to Sarasota, Florida. The resulting drawings were linear and very realistic in capturing the performers’ feats of balance and movement.

Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976)
Profils, 1974, gouache and ink on paper.
Sold for: $147,000

In 1926 Calder moved to Paris. Here, using the circus drawings as inspiration, he began building tiny circus animals and performers out of wire and wood. Calder devised these figures with clever mechanisms to make them trot and roll and leap, and used them in his public performances of his miniature kinetic circus which he called the Cirque Calder. While in Paris, Calder met fellow artists Joan Miró and Fernand Léger who influenced Calder’s progression toward abstraction. In 1930, Calder visited the studio of Piet Mondrian, and saw his work. It was a revelation to Calder. On one white wall of the studio Mondrian had affixed a whole grouping of rectangles of various primary colors. He would arrange and rearrange these papers continuously to experiment with compositions.  Mondrian’s palette and utterly nonrepresentational subjects changed Calder’s entire approach to making art.

Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976)
Untitled Abstract Composition, c. 1942,
gouache, ink, and pencil on paper.
Sold for: $79,950

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Alexander Calder, Shoe with Split Heel, 1946,
painted [red, blue, black] sheet metal.
Sold for: $148,125

Both his two- and three-dimensional works began to employ flat, geometric shapes of solid, bold colors. His saturated palette, though not strictly the red, yellow, and blue primaries of Mondrian, is bright and joyful, as illustrated by the two above works. He soon applied this visual vocabulary to his most famous works: his kinetic sculptures. Calder created his first kinetic sculptures in 1931, and Marcel Duchamp – yet another artist with a wonderful, if not slightly twisted, sense of humor – began referring to these works as “mobiles.” Calder quickly realized that he could propel his mobiles through ambient air currents.

Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976)
Untitled (Standing Mobile), c. 1965,
sheet metal, brass, wire, and paint.
Sold for: $471,000

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Calder’s Untitled (Standing Mobile), c. 1965 employs all of these hallmarks: colorful, abstract shapes suspended on a carefully balanced systems of wire hangers. Calder’s interests in physics, astronomy, and kinetics, coupled with his association with the Paris artists of the Abstraction-Création group, informed this carefully engineered construction. The sturdy, pointed tripod base of this tiny standing mobile gives way to a thin, delicate wire that sits on the tip of the base via a tiny dimple on the underside of the wire. Calder weighted the circular shapes on either end of the wire to enable it to balance perfectly. Engineering skill, artistic genius, elegance, and playfulness all characterize Calder’s mobiles. When activated by a gentle shift in air currents, the elements turn smoothly like a tiny ballet or a solar system.

Alexander Calder, Silver Brooch, c. 1942.
Sold for:  $23,500

Calder’s joie de vivre  is equally apparent in his jewelry, such as the above brooch from c. 1942. Merely a spiral that stretches out into a squiggle, the form is lively and energetic. The work would have been cut out sheet metal, much like the shapes of his mobiles. The silver was then hammered by hand, and a twist of wire was added to the back for a pinstem. The energy is reinforced by the uneven, handmade appearance of the work, imbuing it with an immediacy that would be lost were the edges evenly machined.

Large or small, two dimensional or three, works by Alexander Calder are inevitably playful and exuberant. Their movement, whether physical or merely implied, is energetic and fluid – less whirling dervish or slam dance; more jazz or swing dance. Whoever the movement is characterized, it is upbeat and joyous.


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