The Legacy of Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder in his Roxbury studio, 1941.

July 22, 1998, will mark the centenary of Alexander Calder’s birth, and it is time to assess Calder’s legacy to sculpture. A current retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., (until July 12) focuses on Calder as a kineticist and humorist. But he also made monumental stabiles for public sites, prompting other artists to construct brightly hued steel and aluminum abstractions of gigantic proportions. When Alexander Calder burst upon the art scene in the early 1930s, he was the first American artist of his generation to be an international sensation. For many years thereafter, Calder remained unparalleled among Americans; his ingenious kinetic constructions were greatly admired on two continents.

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.

In the late 1960s the outdoor installation of monumental stabiles presented a new challenge: Calder had to consider the stresses on enormous sheets of metal exposed to wind and varying weather conditions (he used a wind tunnel to resolve some of these problems). While Calder’s knowledge of science and technology was not unique among artists of the 20th century, his training in mechanical engineering was unusual. Calder’s many abstract constructions seem to be put together intuitively, but it is his successful utilization of static and kinetic elements that makes them succeed.

Many artists have been generous in their appraisal of Calder’s inspiration in public statements. Others record in their art a sustained awareness of Calder’s example. Mark di Suvero sums up Calder’s importance for sculptors of his own generation: Anybody who does motion in sculpture has to relate to [Calder]…He was able to take steel and make it balance. This is a man who knew about invisible centers of gravity…Calder chose a dancing motion that had to do with a special kind of pleasure that human eyes need, which is the pleasure of leaves in the wind, of branches, a kind of a gentle relationship to the human hand.1

La Grande Vitesse, 1969.

For sculptors such as Jean Tinguely, George Rickey, and di Suvero, Calder’s sculpture in motion and his large-scale constructions are at the core of their indebtedness. For others, such as Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, and Nancy Graves, Calder’s playful allusions to the forms of nature, his humor, and his transformations of building materials into polychrome fantasies are most relevant.

Some artists first encountered Calder’s work in Paris. Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, who moved to Paris in 1953 and began to create “meta-matics” the following year, was included—along with Calder—in a major exhibition of kinetic art at the Galerie Denise Rene, in April 1955. Tinguely later recalled his art of the early 1950s: I gradually understood that movement was an expressive possibility in itself. With movement one could make things that were sculpturally unlike anything made before…Anton Pevsner was one of the artists who had signed the Russian Constructivist manifesto together with Gabo. I met him with Daniel Spoerri and he told me that movement is nothing, it doesn’t work, they had tried everything without success. That amused me very much because I felt that underneath they were longing for movement, like a whole generation of artists, and the only victorious one among them was Alexander Calder…You could say that the discovery of Alexander Calder opened a door for me that I could enter by. So I followed that direction and I discovered amazing possibilities of movement.2

For Tinguely, Calder offered the potential for change and spontaneity, rather than order and clarity. Already in the 1930s Calder had set paintings in motion by creating relief constructions. In such works as Panel with Moving Element (1941), cut-out metal shapes were attached to a wooden panel and activated by an electrical motor. The configurations did not seem to repeat exactly, and the painted construction appeared to re-invent itself at every turn. Tinguely’s answer to this challenge was his “Metamecanique” series, featuring painted panels and brightly hued geometric elements attached to a motor. His Relief metamecanique addresses the dialectic of deliberation and spontaneity. Because the couplings sometimes slip, the compositional configurations do not repeat in a predictable fashion. This aspect of change, the random act, attracted Tinguely. He called such works “meta-mechanical” as an analogy to “metaphysics” as well as encouraging associations with “metamorphosis.”

Tinguely’s later motorized constructions of found scrap metal show another level of indebtedness to Calder. With the feather of Balouba vert waving wildly, we are reminded of Calder’s motorized devices of the 1930s, which included troupes of dancing forms. Attached to wheels and pulleys, Calder’s hand-constructed mechanical forms frequently hesitated, or broke down completely—making for humorous associations with the run-down machine that ultimately fails. Tinguely perfected the impression of a machine that is on the verge of failing—cogs slip from wheels and mechanical devices falter. The playful and ironic performance alludes to the end of the mechanical age—aptly predicted in Calder’s ambitious “machines” of the 1930s, such as Bicycle, the mechanized construction that Duchamp admired and encouraged Calder to exhibit in a show of mobiles.

American artist George Rickey is frequently discussed as a successor to Calder’s initial achievements with wind-driven mobiles. Rickey is nine years younger than Calder, but he came to sculpture late—not making his first kinetic works until the early 1940s. Rickey chooses to emphasize how he differs from Calder—frequently by generalizing about the agenda of the famed mobilist. When asked to comment on the extent of his debt to Calder, Rickey replied to his interviewer: I’ll leave the percentages of indebtedness or divergence to you to determine, but I will suggest that it’s much too rich a field for any one man to exhaust. Perhaps I’m much less interested in conveying gaiety and wit.3

Rickey is fond of recalling that his father was a mechanical engineer from South Bend, Indiana, and that he spent his own youth in Scotland, receiving a thorough grounding in science and mathematics. Later Rickey became a principal chronicler of the history of kineticism, thus acknowledging Calder’s innovations and status. Claiming for himself a more cerebral and mechanically oriented approach to kinetic sculpture than Calder, Rickey expounds on works featuring complex compositions of movement. He writes: “I used gravity, momentum, inertia, moments of rotation, acceleration, and the laws governing movement as my new box of colors.”4 However, Rickey’s early mobiles, with such titles as Tree (1956) and Vine (1962), rely heavily on Calder’s allusions to forms in nature. In later works, Rickey’s use of poly-chrome is eliminated, and he favors only straight-edged elements. The cool, polished appearance of stainless steel complements planar surfaces that pivot in the wind. Clearly the geometric order and reductivism contrast with the verdant surroundings. But Rickey’s rectilinear forms lack the lyricism of Calder’s moving elements, and present a decorous and subtle fluctuation.

Ellsworth Kelly became a friend of Calder’s in 1952 while Kelly was living in France. Kelly, then 29, deeply admired Calder, who was 54. Subsequently, Calder helped Kelly’s artistic career: when the young artist returned to New York in 1954, after being hospitalized in Paris, Calder paid his rent and recommended him to curators at the Museum of Modern Art and the director of the Guggenheim Museum. But Kelly’s indebtedness to Calder goes beyond help with recognition of his art. From the beginning of his creative years in Paris, Kelly, like Calder, put aside the conventional distinctions made between painting and sculpture. Often he made brightly hued constructions, or paintings with relief elements attached. His paintings are objects in space, and his sculptures, made of flat aluminum sheets, are as thin and reductive as his canvases on stretchers. Kelly’s simple, smooth constructions are freestanding objects in space, like Blue Red Rocker (1963). They resemble giant paper cut-outs in intense colors, liberated from his paintings and collages. Combining geometric and biomorphic elements, they are more abstract and less referential than Calder’s, but they are deeply indebted to him nonetheless. Like Calder, Kelly had a penchant for cutting metal sheets that were then painted. He folded these over planar forms so that they became self-supporting, while Calder tended to bolt sheets together.

Calder retrospective at Palazzo a Vela, Turin, Italy, 1983.

Calder served for many Americans, such as Richard Serra, Alexander Liberman, and di Suvero, as the pioneer in exploring modern building materials for large-scale outdoor works. Stabiles by Calder, rising more than 50 feet in fabrications from the late 1960s and 1970s, featured steel beams and weatherproof industrial paints—utilitarian aspects of the new public monument. Not only did Calder inspire other sculptors to consider the powerful visual effects resulting from industrial metals, but he offered insights to the metaphoric potentials and the poetic qualities they offered.

Some of Mark di Suvero’s monumental constructions feature steel beams that are suspended from chains, and can be moved. Di Suvero noted the brilliant red favored by Calder in such works as La Grande Vitesse (1969) or Flamingo, and has made his own lofty composition of crossed beams in a tripartite format, with vivid surfaces a striking contrast to the surrounding green meadows.

Swedish-born Claes Oldenburg creates gigantic objects that invade urban sites, beckoning the onlooker while seeming incongruous. Commodities—rather than natural elements—attract Oldenburg, but like Calder, he explores the metamorphic possibilities in the objects that he creates. Often these large-scale flashlights or plugs assume the character of living forms. Like Calder, this artist uses his impressive imaginative powers to conjure a poetic vision appropriate to the site, and then adapts his image to the practical necessities of industrial fabrication. As in Calder’s Flamingo, the contextual links between image and site are not obvious, but the visual impact of the brilliantly hued gigantic object within its concrete and glass setting is dramatic.

Calder’s humorous response to the forms of nature interested many sculptors who came to their artistic maturity in recent decades. Nancy Graves is a prime example; born in 1940, she grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where her father worked at the Berkshire Museum, whose collection features Calder’s mobiles. Graves had an abiding involvement with organic forms; through Calder’s art she learned how to represent the heterogeneity of the natural world. As a Constructivist who heeded the principles of modern sculpture, she created openwork sculptures by stacking or piling incongruous assortments of plant forms and fanciful objects. Graves learned to balance disparate elements into whimsical, open compositions that visually defy gravity.5 Although Graves preferred conventional bronze casting to constructing in metal, the vivid patinas and brilliant pigments she applied to her sculptures are indebted to Calder—from whom she learned to contrast forms and colors in lively compositions.

For decades, sculptors on both sides of the Atlantic have found inspiration in the remarkable works of Alexander Calder. In addition to the exploration of actual movement in sculptural compositions, Calder offered splendid direction in balance and in the engineering of shapes into new forms. His mobiles and stabiles, particularly the large-scale examples of the ’60s and ’70s, offered an exciting range of metamorphic, magical possibilities for those seeking expression in three-dimensional forms. Calder is considered by sculptors and critics alike to be one of the true inventors of the 20th century.

Joan Marter is the author of Alexander Calder (Cambridge University Press, 1997).


1 Deborah Solomon, “On the Waterfront with Mark di Suvero,” Journal of Art (October 1990), 9.

2 “Tinguely on Tinguely,” a radio debate in Brussels, December 13, 1982, cited in Pontus Hulten, Jean Tinguely, A Magic Stronger Than Death (New York: Abbeville, 1987), 350.

3 Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (New York: Devin-Adair, 1957) reprinted in Jorn Merkert and Ursula Prinz, George Rickey in Berlin (Berlinische Galerie, 1992), 42.

4 Statement by George Rickey in: George Rickey in South Bend (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1985), 9.

5 Linda L. Cathcart, “Sculpture for the Eye and Mind,” in The Sculpture of Nancy Graves, A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Hudson Hills, 1987), 40, 128.