Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
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Universally accepted as one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century, Alexander Calder broke new ground in the abstract expression of weight, volume, and motion. He represented the third generation in a family of prominent Philadelphia sculptors. Alexander Milne Calder contributed the statue of William Penn atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. Alexander Stirling Calder remains on public view with his relief on the arch in New York’s Washington Square Park. The youngest Alexander, though artistically gifted, found himself initially drawn to engineering and industry. The mathematical precision of his carefully-balanced sculptures and his attention to industrial materials, wire and steel, attest to this early training. At twenty-five, he turned his attention entirely towards art, studying with Thomas Hart Benton, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Guy Pene du Bois at the Art Students League, but the artist set himself apart from his teachers.

At the age of thirty-two, he visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris and became aware for the first time of the power of abstraction. “This one visit gave me a shock that started things…. And for two weeks or so, I painted very modest abstractions. At the end of this, I reverted to plastic work which was still abstract” [quoted in Jean Lipman, Calder’s Universe (New York: 1976), p. 112]. Calder’s palette, like Mondrian’s, became quickly simplified. Unlike Mondrian, who moved further and further away from his model, Calder saw abstraction as a reconciliation: “The basis of everything for me is the universe,” he remarked. “I work from a large live model” [ibid., p. 18]. For Calder, motion and relationships were ultimately more important than what particular things happened to look like, and, with great imagination and grace, he discarded everything else.

The ground-breaking wire mobiles, so named by Marcel Duchamp, were inspired in part by the artist’s fascination with models of the solar system. A master of insinuated form, Calder was able to suggest substance and solidity in parts of feather-lights construction.