Retrospective

‘An Engineer of Beauty’: Alexander Calder on His Mobiles and the Later Stages of His Career, in 1973

Alexander Calder, Triple Gong, ca. 1948, brass, sheet metal, wire, and paint. CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON

Alexander Calder, Triple Gong, ca. 1948, brass, sheet metal, wire, and paint.

CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON

Alexander Calder (1898–1976), whose career spanned more than half a century, continued to reinvent himself well into the later decades of his life. His work was always about motion, literally and figuratively, as the Tate Modern’s show “Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture” makes clear—his mobiles spin around, rather than being planted firmly on the ground. Fittingly, Calder became more free as his career went on, and it was exactly this topic that was the subject of an Summer 1973 ARTnews profile, which looked at how, at age 75, Calder was more independent and ambitious than ever. Some things Herbert Mitigang noted in his profile of Calder: the sculptor wore L.L. Bean, he was more politically minded than critics gave him credit for, and he was very friendly. Mitigang’s profile follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Alexander Calder at 75: adventures of a free man”
By Herbert Mitgang

On July 22 of this year, Alexander Calder turns 75. The artist would be the last one to say so, but this day is a milestone in the history of American and international sculpture. If I were given the pleasant task of writing a few lines for a Presidential Medal of Freedom for Calder, they might read:

“Alexander Calder, son and grandson of American academic sculptors, creator of joy in a circus of wire and wood, inventor of the mobile and stabile, bender of forms for multimedia exhibitions and entertainments in music, ballet and film, illustrator of bales and books, sculptural ambassador to UNESCO and to museums and nations wherever the four winds blow.” But nobody has asked me or anyone else to do so. Sandy Calder is too free a man and artist to need governmental honors.

Genius is not always perceptible in person, especially when hidden behind an L. L. Bean woolen shirt and standing in heavy workingman’s shoes, accompanied by constant laughter and chuckling. Simplicity is often a characteristic of genius, but courtesy not necessarily so, nor the desire for companionship. But Calder will hold the door for you as you enter the quaint old elevator for the short trip to the private quarters in the Perls Gallery in New York. Calder is so devoted to friends, so gregarious, that when he goes from the first to the third floor he wants company for the ride. He asks his dealer and friend, Klaus Perls, for a drink—“the red stuff”—and then hands the Campari to his nearest seatmate. His large body and silver hair dominate the private gallery-living room full of Picassos, Mirós, Braques — and Calders: a small mobile standing on a Noguchi table, a larger, spinning one, a fish with colored glass body, capturing the sunlight of Madison Avenue.

At the artist’s side is his wife Louisa (whose father, Edward Holton James, was a nephew of Henry James), wearing a complex necklace designed by her husband.

We are talking about art and politics and freedom, and Louisa Calder makes a perceptive comment on the subject: “Truth is political, there is politics in truth, and the absence of truth in an artist’s work is also political.” Calder’s sculptures, seen in a larger perspective, are constantly putting the First Amendment—freedom of expression with abridgment—into the public air. He is laughing at convention and restriction, at established authority and at earthlings in positions of power.

Calder does not issue pronunciamentos about indecencies and injustices in the U.S. or elsewhere; he does not have to because his work flouts brutality in men and art. At another gallery down the street are some posters he contributed to help the Democratic candidate in the 1972 election; he made posters for fund-raising parties among expatriates in Paris; he contributed drawings for the benefit of Publishers for Peace; he created sculpture to help the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War; he marched to protest the Vietnam war.

And yet Calder does so not from a political point of view—except insofar as “truth is political”—but as a generous person and artist. “Sandy is a concerned man, from the human point of view,” says his friends and former editor, Fabio Coen. “He is spontaneous, the youngest thinking man I know, and he can be fiery, too. He is earthy, without doubletalk or sham, which is rare.”

Alexander Calder in his Roxbury studio, 1941. CALDER FOUNDATION/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2014

Alexander Calder in his Roxbury studio, 1941.

CALDER FOUNDATION/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2014

The artist’s close friend and neighbour, Robert Osborn, the well-known illustrator and cartoonist, says: “Sandy is direct, uncomplicated and simple. He says very little at times when he is in the center of things because of his taste and modesty, but his remarks at the luncheon table are funny and always to the point. The logic of the mind behind that imagination is a joy to behold.”

Osborn recalls the time they went to Washington together with their wives for a demonstration against the brutality of the war in Indochina. They were with the Connecticut delegation. “We shuffled along, and one was glad that Louisa and Sandy and John Hersey and Robert Lowell and other good people were there, moral and kind souls. Calder was there to lend his name and his bulky presence against the killing and the folly of war.”

In the courtyard of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations there is a Calder called Peace. The sculptor recalled that the installation came about because Arthur Goldberg was the American ambassador to the U.N. at the time. “Apparently I was very nice to Mrs. Goldberg a long time ago when she saw my work at a show in Chicago. She asked me to do something for the United Nations. I wanted to do something for peace. Once night when I was coming home on the train I saw this stabile standing outside Carmen’s ship in Waterbury [where iron-workers assemble his models at the foundry] and decided that it would be appropriate for the U.N., so I gave it to them.”

Léger has said about Calder’s sculpture, “It is 100 per cent American.” Of course, but Calder is the most international of American artists. He was first recognized in Europe, and his works now are in museums from Caracas to Lodz and in public or semi-public squares and buildings around the world. His monumental The Spiral was done for UNESCO headquarters in Paris. His Teodelapio in Spoleto, 60 feet high and weighing 30 tons, his first monumental stabile, was assembled by a shipbuilder in Genoa. It arches the Spoleto crossroads, high and erect. “People keep giving it a phallic meaning,” Calder says. “I wasn’t aware of any such influence, but that may give it its nice force.”

I mentioned that a friend of mine who lives near Lincoln Center had noticed some graffiti on Calder’s Le Guichet standing in front of the Library for the Performing Arts. “I don’t mind if people touch my work,” he laughed, “but I hope they don’t kick it.”

When his work was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum—one of the rare occasions when works of art overpowered Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture—visitors instinctively reached out to touch the mobiles. “They’re meant to be touched delicately. I like the whang they make—noise is like another dimension.”

When his mobiles fly in the air at the Museum of Modern Art, I find it almost impossible not to test the force of the wind in my lungs and see if I can make them shiver slightly. Somehow it always brings to mind Yeats’ line, “turning and turning in the widening gyre”—except that in Calder’s case the center always holds.

His career as an artist began almost casually for Alexander Calder in the Philadelphia suburb of Lawnton, where he was born in the summer of 1898, the son of artists. His father, A. Sterling Calder, a leading academic sculptor, used Sandy at age 4 to pose for a chubby nude, Man Cub, and the lad also sat for his mother, a painter. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, from Scotland, made the statue of William Penn on the dome of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Whether the family lived in Pasadena, Croton-on-Hudson or San Francisco, there was always a studio to ramble in. In New York, when the Calders moved to Claremont Avenue, near Barnard College, Sandy would go downtown to visit his father’s sculpture shop in an old movie studio on East 14th Street. There was always a little corner set aside for Sandy to work with tools, making toys and helmets. It was the mechanical rather than the artistic aspects of the family studio that first interested him. He was fascinated, for example, by the pointing machine for enlarging small sculptures.

He crossed the Hudson and began studying at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, which turned out to be a stroke of luck; it gave him a strong base of mechanical engineering for his later sculptures. After earning his degree he intended to make a career as an engineer. He worked for an automotive engineer in New Jersey, left to become a draftsman for the New York Edison Company, briefly took a job with a hydraulics firm, held down an efficiency expert’s job at Abraham & Straus. He worked as a demonstrator for a company selling motorized garden cultivators, signed on as a fireman on a steamship going to San Francisco, caught a lumber schooner heading for Washington State, became a timekeeper in a logging camp, and for the first time developed his true instinct—he painted scenes of the life around him in the Pacific Northwest.

Alexander Calder, Red and Yellow Vane, 1934. CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY, NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2014

Alexander Calder, Red and Yellow Vane, 1934.

CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY, NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2014

At the age of 25, after knocking around as a lumberman and quasi-engineer, Calder decided to become a painter. “I was getting fed up with all these miscellaneous jobs,” he told his son-on-law, Jean Davidson, for his reminiscences (Calder, Pantheon Books). “I remember the dullest of all, some interim job which consisted in opening cases of applesauce and gluing some label on each can—to pretend the applesauce came from somewhere else.” That did it, and he entered the Art Students League in New York, studying with George Luks, Guy Pène du Bois, John Sloan and Boardman Robinson. Calder connected with Robinson; he learned from him how to draw with a pen and a single line. In 1924 this led to freelance illustrations for the National Police Gazette—an apprenticeship in action drawings with people and animals and an encounter with the strident world of humans in motion. Sitting in the balcony of MacLevy’s Gym, Calder sketched the boxers punching the bag and each other in preparation for Madison Square Garden fights. He exchanged a canvas for a year’s tuition in boxing and trained between sketching for several months. At $20 for each half-page layout, he sketched Paavo Nurmi and other track stars, the polo players and jumpers at the Horse Show, vaudeville performers and Spanish dancers, skee-ball players and hot-dog stands at Coney Island. He picked up some extra money by decorating the Fifth Avenue store of A.G. Spalding with drawings of athletes. The activities at the Garden led to a turning point in his career.

“I went to the circus, Ringling brothers and Barnum & Bailey,” he recounted. “I spent two full weeks there practically every day and night. I could tell by the music what act was getting on and used to rush to some vantage point. Some acts were better seen from above and others from below. At the end of these two weeks, I took a half-page layout to the Police Gazette.”

The resulting sketch in the Police Gazette was called Seeing the Circus with Sandy Calder, and it included elephants, dancing bears, three seals, fat men, aerialists, bareback riders and the center ring in motion. After a few years of ink-line drawings in the Gazette, Calder decided that the real artistic action was in Paris—and this was where his wire and wood circus was developed.

There seemed to be no master plan leading to his circus. Calder stumbled around the edges of serious art in Paris. “In my quest to earn a living I did portraits of buyers for American stores for the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune, drawings for a weekly called Le Boulevardier, toys and animals for friends, and wire portraits.” His wire figure—today it would be called a significant part of his sculptural development—of Josephine Baker, the black dancer and singer who was the rage of Paris, suggested her bumps and grinds and flying breasts in curlicues of soft metal. One version of “La Baker” stood on a base; a second was designed to be suspended from a thread so it could shake and shimmy in the air. In the artistic atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s, anything experimental, explosive and audacious was encouraged and generally admired. Artists, novelists, poets, sculptors were breaking the classic lines and ideas, cutting out the extraneous and the pretentious.

Through a casual meeting with a representative of the Gould Manufacturing Company of Oshkosh, Wisc., Calder invented several toys that moved as they were pulled by children. The company paid him a modest royalty for his action kangaroo, bucking cow, skating bear and other wonderful animals for toddlers. The Oshkosh toys brought Calder one of his first public notices by a critic on The New Yorker, Murdock Pemberton, who said, “A. Calder is a good bet.”

“In New York in February, 1928,” Calder told Jean Davidson, “I showed wire animals and people to Carl Zigrosser of the Weyhe Gallery and Bookshop and he decided forthwith to give me a show. My first show. There were about 15 objects and we priced these things at $10 and $20. Two or three were sold. Among those sold was the first Josephine Baker which I had made in Paris. I think it is about then that some lady critic said: ‘Convoluting spirals and concentric entrails; the kid is clever, but what does papa think?’ Father told me once that he was amused by the small wire things, but that my objects were too sharp to be caressed and fondled as one could do with small bronzes.”

The Calder circus served several purposes, direct and otherwise. It enabled him to experiment and put movement into figures that could fly through the air with the greatest of ease. It gave his work a theatricality tested with audiences in small rooms—fellow artists, friends, society people and various snobs who watched “Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde,” as one Paris journal headlined it, because it was the thing to do. The circus crossed the Atlantic in five suitcases, with customs officers never quite sure whether what they passed was art or scrap metal.

In the Park Avenue living room of Aline Bernstein, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi ran the Victrola for Calder’s show. Her friend Thomas Wolfe was present, making mental notes for a fictionalized version of the performance in You Can’t Go Home Again, Calder later remarked, “He did not have the good sense to present himself and I only heard from him through some nasty remarks on my performance, included in a long-winded book.”

Alexander, Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, 1953. ©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2015

Alexander, Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, 1953.

©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2015

In Paris, Louisa Calder was usually his assistant and Victoria bandmistress for the circus showings. Among those who saw the show were Mondrian, Miró, Léger, Cocteau, Arp, Man Ray, Pascin, Le Corbusier. Sometimes the hat was passed but, more important, Calder met and learned from the trailblazers of the French art world.

Calder’s circus, consisting of 55 figures and animals from a few inches to about a foot in height, include a miniature trapeze ring, lion’s cage, acrobats, sword-swallower, strong man, man on stilts, seals, parachutist, cowboys and wrestlers, stretcher-bearers, etc.

Calder installed the circus at the Whitney Museum in New York on an indefinite loan in 1970. When I visited it on the ground floor recently to eavesdrop on what museum visitors were saying, I heard more comments about its cuteness and fun, along with puzzlement that Calder was responsible for this amusing exhibit, than about the historic meaning of it all in the artist’s development.

My reaction was initially a feeling that the museum had stuck the circus away in a corner by the cafeteria; but on second thought I realized it was placed where people had to pass it casually rather than to pay a reverential visit—and this seemed in keeping with Calder’s modesty and sense of the ordinary.

One day in Paris, Marcel Duchamp came to see Calder’s latest work. He was pleased by the motion that Calder had introduced into his pieces—some cranked by hand, others motor-driven. “I asked him what sort of name I could give these things and he at once produced, ‘mobile,’ ” Calder said. “In addition to something that moves, in French it also means motive. Duchamp also suggested that on my invitation card I make a drawing of the motor-driven object and print: CALDER, SES MOBILES.” The show at the Galerie Vignon arranged by Duchamp attracted most of the artists belonging to the Abstraction-Création movement.

Jean Arp was responsible for the name “Stabile” to describe Calder’s non-motion sculpture. One day he casually inquired, “Well, what were those things you did last year—stabiles?” Calder thereafter had names for the major works in his future.

His friendship with Joan Miró had begun in 1928 when Miró witnessed a Calder circus performance. Thereafter, Calder would drop in at Miró’s studio. Their ideas blended. Miró’s abstract Surrealism was rooted in organic forms, suggesting an origin in nature rather than pure geometrical forms. Calder’s sculpture developed through the application of Miró’s stylistic ideas translated into abstract forms. His work had names: Calderberry Bush, Goldfish Bowl (his first free-floating, wind-operated mobile), Steel Fish, Whale, Constellations (stabiles and mobiles with organic shapes of painted or polished wood), Whirligig, Southern Cross, Black Widow, Jousting Knight, Snow Plow—all of which required applied imagination of the beholder.

But this notion of viewer or reader involvement cuts across arts and letters. Joyce Cary, a modern Renaissance man of literature, wrote that audiences had an obligation to educate themselves so they could comprehend the artist’s form of communication. And what he said about the relationship of art and fact somehow struck me as bearing on Calder’s work: “Only art can convey both the fact and the feeling about the fact, for it works in the medium of common sympathies, common feeling, universal reaction to color, sound, form. It is the bridge between souls.”

The tantalizing question in sculpture—and particularly for Calder, whose beginning figures seem so casual—is how the maquette or model or sketch grew to such monumental size in the artist’s mind and under his hand. Robert Osborn once asked him how the increase in the scale of his work started. Calder replied that in 1954 he had done the water ballet for Eero Saarinen’s General Motors technological center in Detroit. He had hundred-foot-high jets of water rising and falling at different speeds. Some of them rotated in different patterns. “Lines of water can be monumental, too,” Calder said. His large metal constructions began to grow when he was working with architects on problem sites and commemorative locations. He executed a 45-foot mobile for Kennedy International Airport, the Whirling Ear (a motorized mobile) for the U.S. Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, the standing mobile for UNESCO in Paris, all between 1957 and 1959. He pierced the sky with his 60-foot-high stabile in Spoleto in 1962.

Alexander Calder, White Panel, 1936. CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2014

Alexander Calder, White Panel, 1936.

CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK/©ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND DACS, LONDON, 2014

The architect Eliot Noyes wanted The Black Beast, a stabile 11 feet long by 9 feet high to be remade. It was in a fairly light material, but Noyes’ interest led Calder to have it done in a heavy quarter-inch iron plate, and this encouraged other big works that could stand on their own. In the winter of 1958 Calder had a show of fairly large stabiles at Perls. The following winter a group of large stabiles was exhibited at Maeght’s in Paris; before the opening to the public, Maeght brought the entire show, consisting of 10 major stabiles.

Museums continue to vie for Calder stabiles and mobiles. The City, a large stabile with a small mobile element in its center, was brought by Carlos Villaneuva for the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas. (Cararcas also has one of Calder’s most truly monumental works—his huge sculpture of abstract “clouds” which form an acoustical ceiling in the auditorium at the University there.) Clouds Over the Mountains went to the Chicago Art Institute. The Crab was acquired by James Johnson Sweeney—who had first begun to write about Calder as early as 1935 and had advanced the cause of his work at the Museum of Modern Art—for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Between his two houses in Roxbury, Conn., and Saché, France, with his children, grandchildren and friends, with the help of his artistically involved wife, Calder works and steadily enjoys living.

“One-man shows by Alexander Calder appear with the regularity, if not frequency, of the rising sun, and like that phenomenon they are eternally refreshing—predictable, even repetitious, but always something to wonder at,” wrote John Canaday in 1972. Talking about a retrospective of paintings, the New York Times critic said that in whatever medium Calder works, he displays the same combination of joy in life, pleasure in the absurd and “an emulsion of innocence and sophistication that ought to curdle and separate like bad Hollandaise but never does.”

Calder warms up these days by starting work in a one-room house he calls La Gouacherie, turning out gouaches that use only five colors—black, white, blue, red, yellow. Then he gets down to the heavy work in his metal shop, designing models for stabiles and mobiles.

As we talked at Perls, I reached out to touch a small Calder insect, about two feet high, its antennae balanced on a delicate body and legs. Klaus Perls said, “Try taking it apart and see if you can put it together again.” The piece looked simple, but on close examination every part was precisely engineered and in balance. I asked Calder what he called it. He thought for a moment and then said, “Klaus, did you ever give a name to this beastie?” Perls said, “Of course! You named it yourself—La Cucaracha!” Calder laughed, pleased. I inquired if it had any political connotations. “No, just the war against the ants.”

I asked him if he had any idea of what some of the younger artists thought of him, and he said matter-of-factly, “Some of them consider me old hat.” Did he have some new direction to take in the future? Would he invent some new form? “Not exactly,” he said, “or I would have done it by now.”

At the age of 75, he has done what many artists have been unable to do—to maintain a fresh and liberating outlook, without abridgment. As an “engineer of beauty,” as Osborn calls him, Calder has invented new forms, new ways of looking at the earthbound, heartless work of our time.

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