Alexander Calder: The Amazing Creator of 20th Century Sculptures

From an early age, Alexander Calder had a fascination with energy and movement, one that led him to make some of the most important and ground-breaking sculptures of the 20th century and beyond.

Feb 20, 2020By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
Alexander Calder with one of his famous mobile sculptures.
Alexander Calder with one of his famous mobile sculptures.

One of the 20th century’s most pioneering sculptors, Alexander Calder merged mutual interests in art and engineering, with spectacular results. Asking “why must art be static?” he brought dynamism, energy and movement into his large- and small-scale creations, and will forever be remembered as the inventor of the hanging mobile. Like his post-war contemporaries including Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, Calder was also a leader in the language of post-war abstraction, bringing vibrant, eye-popping colours and lively, abstract patterns into his organic designs. Today his artworks are highly prized amongst art collectors and reach staggeringly high prices at auction.

Philadelphia, Pasadena and New York

Born in Philadelphia, Calder’s mother, father and grandfather were all successful artists. Bright and inquisitive, he was a creative child who particularly enjoyed making things with his hands, including jewellery for his sister’s doll from copper wire and beads. When he was 9, Calder’s family spent two years living in Pasadena, where the wild, wide open space was a source of inspiration and wonder, and he set up a home studio to make his first sculptures. His family later moved to New York, where Calder spent his adolescent years.



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A Period of Self-Discovery

Calder’s fascination with movement initially led him to study mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, but following graduation, Calder took on various odd jobs while travelling around the United States. During a visit to Aberdeen in Washington, Calder was greatly inspired by the mountainous scenery and began pursuing the art he loved as a child, making drawings and paintings from life. Moving to New York, he enrolled at the Art Students League, before heading to Paris to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere.

Alexander Calder photographed in Paris, 1929, by Hungarian photographer André Kertész.

The Parisian Avant-Garde

During one of his many boat trips between Paris and New York, Calder met and fell in love with Louisa James, and they married in 1931. They chose to remain in Paris for two years, where Calder was influenced by avant-garde artists including Fernand Leger, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. While in Paris, Calder initially began making linear, wire sculptures based on people and animals, and produced his famous Cirque Calder, (Calder’s Circus), 1926-31, a circus ring with a series of moving, robotic animals, which he would set alive during various art performances, a display which soon earned him a wide following.

Over the next few years Calder expanded into a more abstract language, exploring how colour could move through space, and began producing suspended mobiles, made from carefully balanced elements energised by currents of air, for both indoor and outdoor settings. Other, static sculptures he developed were later called ‘stabiles’, which, instead of moving, suggested the energy of motion with soaring, arching gestures.

Alexander Calder, Cirque Calder, (Calder’s Circus), 1926-31

Family Life in Connecticut

With his wife Louisa, Calder settled for a longer spell in Connecticut, where they raised two daughters. The wide-open space around him allowed Calder to expand into vast scales, and ever more complex creations, while he continued to give his work French titles, demonstrating the deep connection he felt with French art and culture.

Calder also began regular collaborations with various theatre companies, producing theatrical sets and costumes for avant-garde ballet and drama productions between the 1930s and the 1960s. Popularity for his art was on the rise, with a steady stream of public commissions and exhibitions across Europe, even throughout the war. In 1943, Calder was the youngest artist to hold a retrospective show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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A Return to France

Alexander Calder, Grands Rapids, 1969

Calder and his wife spent their final years in France, establishing a new home in the village of Sache in the Loire Valley. Monumental sculpture characterised his later work, which some art critics saw as a sell-out, a move away from the avant-garde into the mainstream establishment. His methods became more technical, as artworks were made in collaboration with large teams of specialists, who assisted him in the construction of the final piece.

One of his most famous sculptures was made for the UNESCO site in Paris, titled Spirale, 1958. Another public art sculpture, Grands Rapids, was made in 1969 for the plaza outside the City Hall in Michigan, although many locals actively despised the original proposal and tried to prevent it from being installed. Even so, the site is well known today as the Calder Plaza, where an annual art festival takes place every year on Calder’s birthday, attracting huge crowds of visitors.

Top Auction Sales

Calder’s most sought after artworks include:

Alexander Calder, Glassy Insect, 1953, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2019 for $2,300,000


Alexander Calder, Fish, 1952, sold at Christie’s New York in 2019 for $17,527,000


Alexander Calder, 21 Feuilles Blanches, 1953, sold for $17,975,000 at Christie’s New York in 2018


Alexander Calder, Lily of Force, 1945, sold at Christie’s New York in 2012 for $18,562,500.


Alexander Calder, Poisson Volant (Flying Fish), 1957, sold at Christie’s in New York for a staggering $25,925,000 in 2014.

10 Unusual Facts About Alexander Calder

Calder’s first ever kinetic sculpture was a duck, which he made in 1909 at the age of 11, as a Christmas gift for his mother. Moulded from a sheet of brass, it was designed to rock back and forth.

Though Calder’s birth certificate said he was born on July 22nd, Calder’s mother insisted they got the month early, and his real birthday should have been on August 22nd. As an adult, Calder took the confusion as an opportunity to host two birthday parties every year, each a month apart.

Before becoming an artist, Calder took on various other jobs throughout the United States, including stints as a fireman, an engineer, logging camp timekeeper and newspaper illustrator.

Calder was said to always carry a coil of wire in his pocket, so he could create wire ‘sketches’ at any point when inspiration struck.

The much-used art term “drawing in space” was first used to describe Calder’s artworks by an art critic for the French newspaper Paris-Midi in 1929.

As well as a sculptor, Calder was a highly skilled jeweller, and created more than 2,000 items of jewellery, often as gifts for family and friends.

A skilled engineer, Calder liked to design gadgets he could use in his own home, including a toilet roll holder shaped like a hand, a milk frother, a dinner bell and a toaster.

Because his artworks were often so large, intricate and complicated, Calder had to devise a careful system to allow them to be safely transported and reassembled, designing colour coded and numbered instructions to be carefully followed.

Calder was vehemently anti-war, and worked in various roles to support those disenfranchised by the political turmoil of the Second World War. One role included spending time with injured or traumatised soldiers and running art making workshops in military hospitals. When the Vietnam War broke out, Calder and his wife Louisa attended anti-war marches and produced a full-page advertisement for The New York Times in 1966 which read “Reason is not treason.”

In 1973 Calder was asked to decorate a DC-8 jet airliner for Braniff International Airways, which, given his mutual interests in motion and engineering, he was quick to accept. His final design was called Flying Colours and took flight in 1973. Following its success, he produced another design for the company, titled Flying Colours of the United States.

Alexander Calder’s Dog, 1909 and Duck, 1909, © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging.
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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.