“One of Calder’s objects is like the sea,” wrote the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “always beginning over again, always new.”1 Alexander Calder conceived of sculpture as an experiment in space and motion. Ranging from delicate, intimate, figurative objects in wood and wire, to hanging sculptures that move, to monumentally scaled abstract works in steel and aluminum, Calder’s art suggests the elemental systems that animate life itself.
Born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, to artist parents, Calder studied painting at the Art Students League in New York before moving to Paris in 1926. There, he gained renown for his Cirque Calder, a multipart artwork comprising dozens of miniature handmade objects, which he performed for audiences of artist colleagues and friends. With a series of human likenesses made from wire bent into formation, Calder used line to float shape, levitate it, and remove sculpture from the pedestal, evoking volume without the accompanying mass.
A 1930 visit to the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio—a workspace arranged like an abstract environment—prompted a radical shift in Calder’s art, from an art of observing things in the world toward an art that opens up a world unto itself. He began to develop the kind of work for which he would become best known: the mobile—an abstract sculpture that moves—so named by Calder’s friend Marcel Duchamp. With this new art form came a new set of possibilities for what a sculpture might be. Rejecting the traditional understanding of sculpture as grounded, static, and dense, Calder made way for a consideration of volume, motion, and space.
Some of his earliest mobiles were motor-activated and displayed on pedestals or hung from walls. Others moved freely in response to air currents or viewer intervention, and were suspended from the ceiling or placed directly on the floor. He would continue to explore the possibilities of this abstract visual language for the rest of his career, working primarily between studios in Roxbury, Connecticut, and Saché, France, eventually shifting focus to monumental constructions and public works.
Uniting all of Calder’s works is a dependence on a viewer’s perception of their many elements to achieve their full expression: they contain infinite forms, none of them final. In time—or as Calder wrote, with “familiarization”2—some of a work’s possible expressions will emerge. In this way, the viewer completes an exercise in perception begun by the artist himself. “The admission of approximation is necessary,” Calder wrote, “for one cannot hope to be absolute in his precision. He cannot see, or even conceive of a thing from all possible points of view, simultaneously. While he perfects the front, the side, or rear may be weak; then while he strengthens the other facade he may be weakening that originally the best. There is no end to this. To finish the work he must approximate.”3
Cara Manes, Associate Curator, Zuna Maza, Curatorial Fellow, and Makayla Bailey, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Les Mobiles de Calder,” in Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Louis Carré, 1946). English translation as “Calder’s Mobiles,” in Sartre, The Aftermath of War, trans. Chris Turner (Kolkata: Seagull, 2008).
Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start
Through Aug 7
Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape
Oct 21, 2019–Oct 4, 2020
401: Out of War
Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift
Oct 21, 2019–Sep 12, 2020
How Should We Live? Propositions for the Modern Interior
Oct 1, 2016–Apr 23, 2017
- Alexander Calder has online.
If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).
All requests to license audio or video footage produced by MoMA should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills or motion picture footage from films in MoMA’s Film Collection cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For licensing motion picture film footage it is advised to apply directly to the copyright holders. For access to motion picture film stills please contact the Film Study Center. More information is also available about the film collection and the Circulating Film and Video Library.
If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].