Among Europeans Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Fernand Leger, and Jean Arp, Calder was the inventive, amusing American, a prankster-turned-Constructivist. To his confreres in the United States, such as David Smith and Ibram Lassaw—also constructing in metal during the 1930s—Calder was admired as the inventor of the mobile, and their only contemporary to be shown in Paris, Berlin, London, and Zurich. From 1932 on, Calder was lionized in New York City for his witty abstractions and his motorized devices, which invaded the Julien Levy and Pierre Matisse Gallery, and soon found their way into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Ibram Lassaw later recalled seeing Calder’s motorized constructions at the Matisse Galleries in 1936 (Calder was in his shirtsleeves repairing some of the motors, which frequently broke down). Lassaw tried to make his own kinetic devices, but soon gave up and returned to abstractions in welded metal. For decades thereafter, both European and American artists would be inspired by Calder’s achievements, for he had made sculpture move, forming compositions of vivid biomorphic and geometric elements cut from industrial metals that featured a variety of motions.
Calder offered his resourceful and inventive spirit to artists on (at least) three continents. Not only was Calder a mentor for kinetic sculpture, he also defined a new approach to large-scale outdoor works. Irrevocably, modern sculptors would set aside the lumpen masses of clay favored by Auguste Rodin and his successors for the materials and praxis of modern industry. With Calder’s Flamingo (1974), for example, public sculpture assumed lean, sleek proportions, incorporating spatial volumes within the composition. Allusions to the wonders of the natural and animal realm abound, but gone is the literal, lifeless figuration that had stifled sculptural production for decades. Calder’s stabiles revitalized a stagnant art form, reintroduced color to outdoor works, and championed the tools and materials of the modern age.
Calder was descended from a family of sculptors and painters, but at the age of 17, he decided to study engineering. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, designed all of the sculptural decoration for Philadelphia’s City Hall, and his parents, both graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, were artists: his father Alexander Stirling Calder was a renowned Beaux-Arts sculptor who created figurative bronzes for public places.
Calder was a good student at the Stevens Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. At Stevens he studied applied kinetics, descriptive geometry, and other subjects that seem relevant to his later creation of sculpture that moves. After graduation and a few jobs related to engineering, Calder studied drawing and painting at the Art Student’s League. By 1930 he had developed an abstract style that related to his European Modernist friends Joan Miró and Piet Mondrian. Calder’s first abstract constructions with moving parts harken back to his engineering training at Stevens, but he was also indebted to Naum Gabo’s kinetic devices, and to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s examples at the Bauhaus.
Calder soon tired of the geometric forms that he had used exclusively in his earliest abstractions and turned to organic imagery. His kinetic pieces alluded to the phenomena of nature—the rustle of leaves, the flight of birds, and the flutter of insects. In his later work Calder developed such proficiency in joining and suspending elements that he no longer needed to make the careful calculations and measurements that were required in the early years. He displayed a facility with sheet metal and rods. Whether his mobiles were attached to a base, or suspended from a wire, Calder was always the master of his materials and methods.
Text source: International Sculpture Center