When Alexander Calder died on November 11, 1976 in New York of a heart attack, he was 78. “More than any other American artist, Calder penetrated the awareness of the public at large,” wrote British American art critic John Russell (The New York Times/Nov 12, 1976). “He was a complete artist and a complete citizen. In his life, as in his art, he never prevaricated… Calder could do what he liked with an absolute assurance. He could draw, he could paint, he could illustrate books, he could design tapestries and stage sets, he could make toys for his grandchildren… In his 70’s, and although his health gave cause for anxiety to everyone but himself, he multiplied his activity. He was here, there, and everywhere… He took hold of life and shook it, in his last years, and when the occasion called for a supreme effort, he was ready.”
By the time he breathed his last, Calder had become known as one of the great abstract sculptors of the 20th century for his use of unconventional materials and dramatic re-imagining of space.
The youngest artist to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943, he went on to win the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 1952. He travelled the globe; and was friends with some of the biggest names in the art world.
His works were exhibited in top galleries and museums across continents. He handled several high-profile public commissions in America and outside; and received prestigious awards and accolades.
Engineering to art
Curiously, Calder who was born into a family of artists and became one of modern art’s most influential figures, was not encouraged to pursue arts as a young man. While his father, a well-known sculptor and mother, a painter brought up their children to appreciate the arts, they discouraged them in following in their footsteps. Calder, at their behest, attended college and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919.
Thereafter, he led a vagabond life taking odd jobs. While working as an illustrator for the National Police Gazzette, he began taking drawing classes at a New York Public School in evenings; later, he studied painting at the Art Students League in New York, and found part-time work as a commercial artist.
His move to Paris in 1926 to enrol in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière proved to be life-changing. In Paris, he met and befriended some of the most important avant-garde artists, including Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp.
He also met his long-time friend Joan Miró (1893— 1983) in Paris in 1928. The Spanish painter’s work had considerable impact on Calder who once said: “Well, the archaeologist will tell you there’s a little bit of Miró in Calder and a little bit of Calder in Miró.”
The turning point of his career, however, came in October of 1930 when Calder visited the Parisian studio of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).
The historic visit gave him a creative surge, ignited his interest in non-figurative art, and laid the foundation for everything he created thereafter. In his own words, the visit ‘gave the shock that converted me’; and was ‘like the baby being slapped to make his lungs start
Mobiles and stabiles
From his early days, Calder worked with many mediums, and drew inspiration from diverse sources. “Calder was a mixer,” observed Roberta Smith (NY Times/27 May 1998), “and go-between with free passage across all sorts of boundaries, between high and low art, painting and sculpture, art and science, the geometric and the natural.”
While Calder was prolific and produced a vast array of works, his name became intrinsically linked with his ‘mobiles’ (moving sculptures) and ‘stabiles’ (stationary/self-supporting constructions). His experimenting with abstract sculpture began in the early 1930’s when he introduced moving parts into his work. In his ‘mobiles’ (so named by Duchamp), abstract forms and shapes connected by wires swayed and moved freely with the flow of air.
The kinetic objects with varying shapes, weight and volume suspended in mid-air seemed to achieve a magical balance, rhythm and dynamic presence in space which mesmerised the viewers and critics alike. As they changed shape with the gentle motion, they also left interesting shadows all around, adding lyricism and subtle humour to the space and
In his ‘stabiles’, Calder brought in a distinct monumentality by composing curvilinear shapes of metal; and still managed to produce a sense of playfulness, lightness and motion. “My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement,” explained Calder for whom the primary inspiration came from watching nature in all its glorious and gentle forms, spaces and movements.
“The thing that makes Calder unique as a sculptor is his sense of a cosmic mathematic,” wrote James Jones (Esquire/March 1964).
“He is willing to believe equally in a nonspace as well as in space. Because of this, his stabiles (and his mobiles as well) are able to fill a given space without occupying it.”
In January 1955, Calder and his wife Louisa came to Ahmedabad at the invitation of the Sarabhai family. In a studio set up in the family’s 20-acre estate Calder worked intensely for three weeks and produced a set of nine mobile sculptures (with steel wire and painted aluminium sheet) along with some pieces of jewellery. The visually striking sculptures bore all the trademark elements Calder was famous for, and stood gliding
and swinging in the peace and tranquillity of the Sarabhais’ secluded gardens.
After their stay in Ahmedabad, the Calders travelled around India and Nepal on a trip organised by their hosts, before returning home.
The couple and the Sarabhais bonded well and stayed in touch with each other. Calder remained lifelong friends with the family, exchanging letters until his death in 1976.
His affection for the Sarabhais could be seen in the piece ‘Happy Family’, he produced in Ahmedabad. It shows eight spheres symbolizing the eight children of Ambalal and Saraladevi Sarabhai.