Calder Foundation

Teaching Guide

This curriculum is intended as an outline that teachers and museum educators can use to teach children about the life and art of Alexander Calder (CALL-der) in conjunction with a Calder exhibition. It contains suggested areas of discussion, questions to raise, and points to touch upon. The topics and questions are for all grade levels and can be edited to be appropriate and understandable for each age group as educators see fit. It should not be viewed as a script; the intention is to allow for the vital and stimulating learning that results when we allow for spontaneity, and must therefore be in part directed by students’ questions and discoveries.

Some educational institutions may choose to place more emphasis on the writing component of the program, extending this to allow for further writing which may take place back in the classroom. This curriculum is easily modified for a more extensive writing segment to be inserted.

Pre-Viewing Discussion

The Pre-Viewing Discussion should not be a formal lecture; it should be kept brief and should serve to provide context, both of Calder’s life and his place in the history of art. Include basic information on Calder’s life and work (see following biography). A few biographical notes go a long way toward giving some sense of who the artist was, where he lived (especially relevant to children if the show is taking place in an area where Calder might have lived or worked or had a major exhibition, etc.), and the times and culture in which he lived and how this contributed to his views and his work.

In teaching Calder, avoid perpetuating erroneous and misleading statements about him: while Calder did occasionally make toys for the children in his life, he was not a “tinkerer” who made a group of playthings. Calder did not conceive of his work as toys. Such statements minimize his intellectual achievements.

Likewise, situating Calder in the history of art by showing art of, or images of art from, various time periods and cultures is intended to convey how startlingly innovative Calder’s art is. Children have an almost immediate love of Calder’s work, yet they don’t necessarily have the art historical knowledge to appreciate that his work exhibits a dramatic departure from the qualities and traits that sculpture shared for thousands of years. This needn’t be an especially lengthy or time consuming component of the workshop, but is a valuable and rewarding concept to grasp. There are very few artists about whom it can be said single-handedly created a new art form. Calder’s work challenged existing principles of modern sculpture and defined him as the most innovative sculptor of the 20th century. Presenting Calder’s art in the context of world sculpture historically drives home this point dramatically and underscores the enormity of his achievement. Depending on the time schedule and the layout of the museum, it may be easier to incorporate this discussion after the viewing.

By way of introduction, students should be told at this point that what they are about to see is very different from the way that sculpture had been conceived of until then. Ask them to name famous sculptures, or sculptures they have studied recently. Show images of Egyptian, Greek/Roman, Rodin, Moore, and/or Brancusi, conveying the span of time covered by these works. Discuss briefly the attributes of these traditional sculptures: the materials used (stone, bronze, etc.), the massive quality (solid, no open spaces), and the static nature of the works.


Suggested topics and questions for the Viewing portion of the workshop are intended to teach children how to begin to talk about (and hence write about) Calder’s work. As stated, this can be modified for different age groups, but it is important to convey to all levels the concept of sculpture that contains open space, volume without mass, balance, and movement, and especially how movement creates an ever-changing composition. Additionally, students should be told that one of Calder’s innovations was the use of simple industrial materials in art: steel, aluminum, and wire.

Convey also that Calder invented the mobile (MOH-beel). It is an art form that did not exist prior to his creation of it.

In allowing the children to pick a work that they especially like and spend more time with it, they are provided with a chance to study an individual work in-depth and to notice details, such as construction and materials. This process of understanding a work of art is enhanced if they prepare their observations to share with the group.

Once in the gallery, a sweeping view of the room should launch a discussion of how different these works are from the images they have just seen in the Pre-Viewing Discussion: the use of space as a component of the sculpture; individual elements separated from each other by wire, rod or string; abstract vs. representational sculpture; the use of materials not previously or rarely used in art (found objects and industrial materials of steel, wire, and plates of metal); the prevalence of primary colors and black and white, and, of course, the use of balance, movement, and the role of chance.

The class as a group is then taken to key works and specific points can be made at each work:

First, a wire sculpture, comparing it to an early 1930s continuous line drawing if there is one present in the show, discussing the differences in the two: two dimensional representation of three dimensions vs. translating that to space, i.e., drawing in space with wire. Discuss also the use of open space in the wire sculpture, economy of line, how it contains volume without mass, etc.

Next a mobile, noting the industrial materials from which it is made, watching if it is moving, discussing how it is a constantly changing composition that moves incorporating the elements of chance, and walking around the work to experience the variable composition. Discuss balance and how the work appears to have been constructed, noting that wires do not cross, nor do elements collide unless the artist designed it that way.

Ask the group if the work conveys a mood or feeling.

Next a stabile: even though this work doesn’t move, how is it still very different from the images they had seen of traditional sculpture? Does it still look like it might move or “wants” to move? How would it if it could?

Next a standing mobile, noting that it is a combination of a stabile and a mobile, and discussing the use of a base and how this work differs from a hanging mobile, noting how the point of balance has been shifted to include the floor. How does gravity act on both a hanging and standing mobile?

If there is a Constellation present in the show, students can consider how this work is different from the other Calder works. It should be pointed out that these works were made during World War II and the artist carved wooden elements because metal was scarce. This can prompt discussions of both the artist’s materials and the things that sometimes affect the selection of those materials, and how art is affected by war and other calamitous events.

Students can then finish viewing that room on their own or in small groups, with teachers and museum staff moving continuously through the room to keep the focus and answer questions.

After the entire show has been viewed, students are told to return to a work that they especially liked and spend more time with it, noticing what it is made of, what colors it is painted, if it makes them think of anything, if it makes them feel anything, and if there is an area, element, or curve that they find pleasing. It should be conveyed that they can like a part of the work or find a shape pleasing without necessarily having a reason why.

After a short period students are invited to bring the whole group over to the work they have chosen and share with the group their observations; i.e., their answers to the above questions, beginning with what the work is called, and what it is or appears to be made of, and then what they like about it.


Children can write about what they have just seen (“explain the show to a friend who isn’t here today,” for example), about the works they especially liked, about the show overall, or make notes about the gallery experience to expound upon later back in the classroom. Or, children can write a poem based on their experience of the show or a specific work. Or, they can make up a story in which they go back in time to visit with the artist and watch him work in his studio. What does he say? What do they see?


Alexander “Sandy” Calder was born into a family of renowned artists who encouraged him to create from a very young age. As a boy, he had his own workshop where he made toys for himself and his sister. He received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919 but soon after decided to pursue a career as an artist. Calder attended classes at the Art Students League in New York from 1923 to 1925, supporting himself by working as an illustrator.

In 1926 Calder arrived in Paris where he developed his Cirque Calder, a work of performance art employing small-scale circus figures he sculpted from wire, wood, cloth, and other materials. Through these elaborate performances, Calder met members of the Parisian avant-garde. At the same time, Calder sculpted three-dimensional figurative works using continuous lengths of wire, which critics described as drawings in space. He explored ways to sculpt volume without mass and to capture the essence of his subject through an economy of line and articulated movement. Calder’s wire works then became increasingly gestural, implying motion. By the end of 1930, this direction yielded his first purely abstract sculptures.

After translating drawing into three dimensions, Calder envisioned putting paintings into motion. He developed constructions of abstract shapes that can shift and change the composition as the elements respond to air currents. These sculptures of wire and sheet metal (or other materials) are called “mobiles.” A mobile laid flat exists only as a skeleton, a reminder of its possibilities, but when suspended it seems to come alive.

Calder also developed “stabiles,” static sculptures that suggest volume in multiple flat planes, as well as standing mobiles, in which a mobile is balanced on top of a stabile. Calder furthered his work by developing a monumental scale. His later objects were huge sculptures of arching lines and graceful abstract shapes that now inhabit public plazas worldwide.

Calder was an artist of great originality who defined volume without mass and incorporated movement and time in art. His inventions redefined certain basic principles of sculpture and have established him as the most innovative sculptor of the twentieth century.