Understanding Alexander Calder through 6 Pivotal Artworks

Karen Chernick
Jan 8, 2018 11:14PM

Gordon Parks, Alexander Calder, Roxbury, Connecticut, 1952, Jenkins Johnson Gallery. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

On Christmas morning in 1909, the parents of an 11-year-old Alexander Calder unwrapped their son’s handmade gifts: a small dog and duck, each lovingly sculpted from sheets of brass. Artists themselves, Calder’s mother and father would eventually lend these early creations to the Museum of Modern Art in 1943 for their son’s first New York retrospective.

Calder was a pioneer of 20th-century sculpture, among the first to endow his works with a fourth dimension: movement. Duck (1909), which rocks back and forth on its curved underside, can be considered the artist’s first kinetic sculpture. Indeed, many of his early works foreshadow the large-scale masterpieces for which the artist is best known today—a progression charted by art critic Jed Perl in his newly published biography Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898–1940. From wire portraits to hanging mobiles, the six works below represent significant shifts in Calder’s artmaking during the first four decades of his life.

Cirque Calder (1926–31)

In 1926, Calder moved to Paris to pursue an artistic career. There, he began to sculpt a miniature circus out of wire, cork, fabric, a repurposed eggbeater, crimped candy wrappers, and other odd scraps. Acting as ringmaster in front of an audience, Calder would pull the strings or turn the cranks that activated his tiny performers. (Occasionally, these events served as an introduction to other avant-garde artists, including writer Jean Cocteau, painter Piet Mondrian, and architect Le Corbusier.)

Cirque Calder anticipated the artist’s later development of mobile sculpture. It also marked the beginning of his use of wire as a medium, which “led to wire sculptures of figures and animals, which led to abstract sculptures dominated by arcs, circles, and spheres, which, in turn, led to sculptural constructions that circulated in space,” writes Perl in a chapter entirely devoted to the circus. “Everything Calder ever did would be informed by the experiences of those first years in Paris.”

This is one of Calder’s best-known works and has been on semi-permanent display at the Whitney Museum since 1971. “I don’t use this word lightly, but the work is a masterpiece,” says David Breslin, curator and director of the collection at the museum. “Whenever you see a work at the Whitney whose formal ambition includes a nod to performance, humor, cross-cultural exchange, popular culture, experimentation, and—not least—the possibility of joy, Calder’s Circus is the living antecedent.”

Josephine Baker I (c. 1926)


Calder soon began sculpting exclusively in wire, earning him a nickname among French critics as the “king of wire.” Among the earliest of these works was Josephine Baker I, the first of five wire portraits he created of the African-American expatriate celebrated for her Parisian dance performances. (The 1926 version now survives only in photographs.)

During this period, Calder unsuccessfully applied for a grant from the newly founded John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, writing in the application that he wanted “to invent the use of new and unusual materials and methods in sculpture.” Josephine Baker I was a spirited step in that direction, eventually exhibited and sold at a two-man show with Emil Ganso in New York in 1928. The artist considered this the first significant exhibition of his work—and his mother, a painter herself, agreed. “Though it is not our style, something will come of it,” Nanette Calder predicted at the opening.

Croisière (1931)

Although Calder’s wire sculptures of the late 1920s simplified the human form, it was a 1930 trip to Mondrian’s Parisian studio that pushed him towards pure abstraction. The visit “was like the baby being slapped to make his lungs start working,” Calder wrote in the 1950s. “[It] gave me the shock that converted me.”

Croisière (French for “cruise”) was among his earliest abstract works, shown at Calder’s first exhibition of abstract sculpture at the Galerie Percier in Paris in 1931. The preliminary title was Croisière dans l’espace (Cruise Through Space), suggesting an arc of movement—perhaps that of the sculpture’s thicker rod piercing the globe-like sphere created by two intersecting wire circles.

Calder had married Louisa James a year earlier, and Perl argues that her family’s wealth may have granted the artist the financial freedom to create more experimental work. A few short months after Croisière, he ventured even further—adding manually propelled and motorized elements to similar abstract sculptures. It was these works that led Dadaist Marcel Duchamp to coin the term “mobiles” in Calder’s Parisian studio in the fall of 1931. “This, in French, means not only ‘movable’—but also a ‘motive,’ ‘a reason for an act,’ so I found it a very good word,” Calder wrote years later.

Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/33)

Calder’s first hanging mobile was considered so experimental, the curator of the artist’s 1943 MoMA retrospective refused to include it—and that was a full decade after it had been created. Composed of two balls attached to wires of different lengths on a metal rod, the mobile hung above a collection of found and repurposed objects arranged on the floor: glass bottles, a can, a wooden box, and a small gong. When it was exhibited in Paris in 1933, viewers were invited to activate the mobile, setting the balls in motion so that they would collide with the objects on the floor.

Unlike his previous motorized mobiles, in which Calder dictated precisely how the work would move, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere introduced the element of chance (which, in turn, heralded Calder’s later large-scale, wind-driven mobiles). “The most extraordinary part is the white ball traveling around and not hitting objects,” said Alexander S.C. Rower, grandson of the artist and president of the Calder Foundation, at a live demonstration of the sculpture at the Whitney Museum in 2017. “The sense of anticipation and the release of that anticipation is really the greatest part of the work of art.”

It also invites the viewer to take an active role in the arrangement of the sculptural elements. “Calder did not determine a final placement of the impedimenta but rather intended for the viewer to step into the role of composer and performer,” Rower told Artsy.

Steel Fish (1934) and Devil Fish (1937)

The massive public sculptures that Calder created later in life—including Man (1967) in Montreal and .125 (1957) in what is now New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport—have their beginnings several decades earlier. In 1933, the previously urbanite Calder purchased an 18-acre country home in Connecticut that allowed his work to grow to monumental proportions.

According to Rower, the shift began with works such as Steel Fish (Calder’s first welded outdoor sculpture) and Devil Fish (one of his earliest stabiles, or large-scale stationary sculptures). Steel Fish, a roughly 10-foot-tall standing mobile, was initially placed on a hill outside the artist’s Connecticut home—becoming, in essence, a colossal weather vane waiting to play with the wind. While Devil Fish clocks in just under six feet tall, its dynamic, biomorphic shapes would eventually be echoed in Calder’s later, grander public works.

Karen Chernick