Sam Francis

Untitled, 1984

106.7 X 73 inch

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Mobiles, Maquettes, Tulips and Butterflies: Alexander Calder, the Architect of XX Century Sculpture

Mobiles, Maquettes, Tulips and Butterflies: Alexander Calder, the Architect of XX Century Sculpture

By Andrew Bay, UK


Alexander Calder was born in July 1898 in a middle-class artistic family in Pennsylvania. One might say he already had art in his DNA, since his mother was a skilled painter, and both his father and his grandfather were renowned American sculptors. Back in the Old Country in Scotland, his ancestors had been stone craftsmen and masons for several generations. Calder and his older sister Margaret grew up in a loving, creative household, dividing their time between New York and California.

After graduating from high school in 1915, Calder decided to become an engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Although his stint in this institution was only short-lived, he learned sound scientific principles in the fields of mathematics, physics, kinetics, and the nature of industrial materials. This knowledge undoubtedly served him well later on in his artistic and creative process. 

Calder eventually suspended his engineering studies to enter the Arts Student League in New York in 1923, where he could at last, exclusively dedicate himself to studying art. He immediately proved himself to be an exceptional student, soon securing assignments with several New York magazines as an illustrator. In 1926, he set sail for Paris, the art capital of the world, to study art in Montparnasse. There, he met his future wife Louisa James (the grandniece of famed novelist Henry James) and developed long-lasting friendships with notable avant-garde artists, such as Fernand Leger and Marcel Duchamp, who greatly admired his early works. Up until the time when Calder started to produce his first inimitable "mobiles" (as Marcel Duchamp coined them), sculpture had essentially been an articulation of density and wholeness. Calder discovered that something new could be done with the form, that wouldn't be earthbound, and could be as light as the flight of a butterfly. 

In his earliest exhibitions in Paris in the 1930s, Calder fissured all the preconceptions about sculpture which had preceded him. Nothing as groundbreaking as his vision had been anticipated in the XX century. 

 

He single-handedly transformed the nature of his discipline, reinventing what sculpture was, and what it would subsequently become. In his work, Calder is able to express the sense of movement and vitality that reflects not only his creative power but also his daring resourcefulness as an inventor. His dynamism almost invokes the flamboyant potency of the Earth itself,  and his objects are no longer artifacts, but pure experiences and events. 

Upon returning to the United States in the mid-1930s, Calder and his wife settled down in Connecticut, where their daughters Mary and Sandra were born and raised, in the 1940s. 

During the course of a career spanning over 70 years, Calder produced an immense body of work: mechanical pieces, paintings, sketches and etchings, domestic appliances, jewlery, gigantic sculptures, and a large collection of extraordinary mobiles. The artist spent most of his time between his homes in Roxbury, Connecticut, and Saché in the Loire Valley in France. Alexander Calder was unquestionably one of the most significant and influential artists of the XX century. He really built a bridge between different roles, which hadn't previously been combined: sculptor, inventor, and artist. 

In the 1930s, Calder famously met Mondrian in his Paris studio, and the visit probably changed the course of the history of post war art. Mondrian was creating the theoretical framework for Modernism, with his large geometrical shapes and dramatic use of colour. For Calder, this was nothing short of a revelation, and he immediately decided to make these notional forms come to life. He successfully accomplished this, by bringing the organic features in his sculptures to the fore, thus building a bridge between classic abstraction, and the physical natural world around him. 

Calder's work is never confined by limitations of any kind. He ploughs through the kinetic characteristics of his sculptures, in search of space, motion, and possibility. His art exists as a sentient contingency, designed to help us get to the essence of what Calder may have tentatively referred to as, the ever-shifting, cloudy haze, of reality. 

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