“One of Calder’s objects is like the sea,” wrote the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “always beginning over again, always new.” 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”—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.”
Cara Manes, Associate Curator, Zuna Maza, Curatorial Fellow, and Makayla Bailey, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021