Alexander Calder. Photograph of Alexander Calder. 1943. Gelatin Silver Print, 9 9/16 x 6 7/16" (24.3 x 16.3 cm). Photographic Archive, Artists and Personalities. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

“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

  1. 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).

  2. Alexander Calder, statement in Alexander Calder: Modern Painting and Sculpture, exh. cat. (Pittsfield, Mass.: Berkshire Museum, 1933), 2–3.

  3. Alexander Calder, “A Propos of Measuring a Mobile,” unpublished manuscript, October 7, 1943. Calder Foundation archives.

Wikipedia entry
Alexander Calder (; July 22, 1898 – November 11, 1976) was an American sculptor known both for his innovative mobiles (kinetic sculptures powered by motors or air currents) that embrace chance in their aesthetic, and static "stabiles" monumental public sculptures. Calder preferred not to analyze his work, saying, "Theories may be all very well for the artist himself, but they shouldn't be broadcast to other people."Born into a family of artists, Calder's work first gained attention in Paris in the 1920s and was soon championed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, resulting in a retrospective exhibition in 1943. Major retrospectives were also held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1964) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1974). Calder's work is in many permanent collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He produced many large public works, including .125 (at JFK Airport, 1957), Pittsburgh (Carnegie International prize winner 1958, Pittsburgh International Airport) Spirale (UNESCO in Paris, 1958), Flamingo and Universe (both in Chicago, 1974), and Mountains and Clouds (Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 1996). Although primarily known for his sculpture, Calder also created paintings and prints, miniatures (such as his famous Cirque Calder), theater set design, jewelry design, tapestries and rugs, and political posters. He was honored by the US Postal Service with a set of five 32-cent stamps in 1998, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously in 1977, after refusing to receive it from Gerald Ford one year earlier in protest of the Vietnam War. An important Calder work is the monumental "Floating Clouds" (1952–1953) of the Aula Magna (Central University of Venezuela) of the University City of Caracas in Venezuela. This work is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Calder's clouds were specially designed to combine art and technology, making the auditorium one of the top 5 university auditoriums in the world by sound quality.
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Getty record
Calder graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering. After taking classes at the Arts Students League, he became a freelance artist and illustrator, and published a book titled Animal Sketching. In the 1920s, Calder began traveling to Paris, where he was exposed to modernist tendencies in art. In 1930, after visiting Piet Mondrian's studio, where he was impressed by the studio environment, he began to create Comment on works: abstract, moving constructions, coined “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp in 1931, for which he is most known. From the 1930s onward, Calder divided his time between trips abroad and his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, and as his commissions grew more frequent, his mobiles became increasingly gigantic. Examples are Flamingo, the stabile at Federal Center Plaza in Chicago, and L’Araignée rouge, at the Rond Point de La Défense Métro station in Paris.. Comment on works: abstract
American, French
Artist, Designer, Lithographer, Tapestry Designer, Illustrator, Painter, Sculptor
Alexander Calder, Sandy Calder, Calder
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


294 works online



  • Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 144 pages

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