Alexander Calder: Father of the Mobile

Remember those dangling toys that would spin above your crib while you were an infant? They’re called mobiles.  We were all too young to remember our first interaction with them, but they have found their place as a popular toy for nurseries. Now used to pacify a crying child, mobiles were originally conceived by artist and sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Calder.

He was born on July 22, 1898, to a family of artists. His father and grandfather were both sculptors, who created notable works such as the William Penn sculpture above Philadelphia City Hall. His mother, Nanette, was also an accomplished painter.

At the age of 11, he made small sculptures of a dog and a duck as Christmas presents for his parents.  The duck was Calder’s first kinetic sculpture rocking back and forth when tapped. Calder’s family moved back and forth from San Francisco and New York throughout his high school years. They supported his craft by turning their cellars into studio spaces.

Calder’s earliest kinetic sculpture, “Duck”

After graduating from Lowell High School in San Francisco, Calder enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. There, he studied mechanical engineering. After holding several engineering jobs, he decided to move to New York and study at the Art Students’ League in 1924.

In 1926, he moved to Paris and continued working on wire sculptures and line drawings. Intrigued by the circus, he made the Cirque Calder. The kinetic piece uses wire models to mimic the motions and movements of circus performers.

Cirque Calder

In 1930, Calder made a pivotal stop at Piet Mondrain’s studio. This would later influence his work moving towards abstract kinetic sculptures. Admiring the blocks of colors in Mondrain’s painting, Calder quipped about wanting to see them move. Soon, he began to create “mobiles” (a term coined by fellow artist Marcel Duchamp) which were moving works of art constructed from wire, wood and metal cut outs. He would implement a crank or small motor which would move individual pieces within the work. Calder believed that one could compose artistic movements and motions, in the same way that Mondrain composed colors and forms. Calder’s inspiration and attraction towards the abstract would result in countless paintings, mobiles and stabiles (stationary abstract sculptures).

Two Spheres within a Sphere. 1931


Although abstract, these three-dimensional compositions evoke in their form and movement representations of planets and other celestial bodies. “The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof,” Calder wrote. “What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.”



Calder assembling “Nine Discs” (1936)


In 1933, Calder returned to America and married Louisa James. He fathered two daughters, while continuing to create art and travel.

Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939) at the Museum of Modern Art

Calder with 21 feuilles blanches (1953) in Paris



La Grande Vitesse, 1969

Eagle, 1971


He made numerous sculptures and works across France and North America until his untimely death in 1976.

To some, Calder’s artwork may seem like little more than abstract shapes fused together or balanced on wire and string,  there is no doubt Calder has made an impact today’s design cues and culture.

If this brief profile has piqued your interest in his work, the Calder Foundation has worked with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to host an exhibit. It will be on display until July 27, 2014. Get your tickets here!

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