Alexander Calder created works of art throughout his childhood. While living in Pasadena in 1906 amidst the flourishing Arts and Crafts Movement, Calder was given his first tools and a workshop where he made toys and jewelry for his sister’s dolls. For Christmas in 1909, Calder presented his parents with two of his earliest sculptures, a dog and a duck made out of bent brass sheet. In his twenties, Calder moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League where he produced paintings congruous with the Ashcan aesthetic. He worked concurrently at the National Police Gazette, illustrating sporting events and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and he made hundreds of brush drawings of animals at the Bronx and Central Park zoos, later published in Animal Sketching. Calder commonly used sheet metal and wire for sculptures and other projects during this period.
Soon after moving to Paris in 1926, Calder created his Cirque Calder. Made of wire and a spectrum of found materials, the Cirque was a work of performance art that gained Calder an introduction to the Parisian avant-garde. Calder continued to explore his invention of wire sculpture, whereby he “drew” with wire in three dimensions the portraits of friends, animals, circus themes, and personalities of the day. In 1928, he was given his first solo exhibition of these sculptures at the Weyhe Gallery in New York.
Following a visit in October of 1930 to Mondrian’s studio, where he was impressed by the environment and actuation of space, Calder made his first wholly abstract compositions and invented the kinetic sculpture now known as the mobile. Coined for these works by Marcel Duchamp in 1931, the word mobile refers to both “motion” and “motive” in French. The earliest mobiles moved by a system of cranks and motors, although these mechanics were virtually abandoned as Calder developed mobiles that responded to air currents, light, humidity, and human interaction. He also created stationary abstract works that Jean Arp dubbed stabiles. The first of Calder’s outdoor works were made during this era as well.
In 1937, Calder completed Devil Fish, his first stabile enlarged from a model. He received two important commissions: Mercury Fountain for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair and Lobster Trap and Fish Tail for the main stairwell of the new Museum of Modern Art building in New York in 1939. His first retrospective was held in 1938 at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. Another retrospective followed in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp. Calder was the youngest artist ever to whom the museum had dedicated a full-career survey, which was so popular that it was extended into 1944.
Eager to exhibit again in Europe after the end of World War II, Calder had a major show in 1946 at Galerie Louis Carré in Paris for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a seminal essay. Calder traveled to Brazil in 1948 where he held two highly successful exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. International Mobile, made in 1949 for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Third International Exhibition of Sculpture, was Calder's largest mobile to date. He designed sets and costumes for a number of theatrical performances and accepted a grand commission to design a huge acoustic ceiling for the Aula Magna auditorium at Universidad Central de Venezuela. In 1952, Calder represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, winning the grand prize for sculpture.
During a yearlong stay in Aix-en-Provence, Calder executed the first group of large-scale outdoor works and concurrently concentrated on painting gouaches. In 1954–55, he visited the Middle East, India, and South America, with trips to Paris in between, resulting in an astonishing output and range of work. Toward the late 1950s, Calder turned his attention to commissions both at home and abroad, producing such recognizable works as .125 (1957), a mobile hung in John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, and Spirale (1958), a major commission for U.N.E.S.C.O. in Paris. In Italy, Calder created Teodelapio, a stabile over 58 feet tall, for the 1962 Spoleto Festival.
In 1963, Calder completed construction of a large studio overlooking the Indre Valley. With the assistance of a full-scale, industrial ironworks, he began to fabricate his monumental works in France and devoted much of his later working years to public commissions. Some of his most important projects include: Trois disques (Man) for the 1967 exposition in Montreal; El Sol Rojo for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games; and La Grande vitesse for Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1969, the first public art work funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Major retrospectives of Calder's work were held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (1964); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1964); Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris (1965); the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France (1969); and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1976). Calder died in New York in 1976 at the age of seventy-eight.