Simanaitis Says

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ALEXANDER CALDER CAME FROM a family of artists—his grandfather’s colossal William Penn stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall; his father’s public installations grace this and other cities; his mother, having studied at La Sorbonne, was a portrait painter. 

An Intuitive M.E. As Wikipedia recounts, “Alexander Calder’s parents did not want him to be an artist, so he decided to study mechanical engineering…. ‘I was not very sure what this term meant, but I thought I’d better adopt it,’ he later wrote.”

Calder’s intuitive sense of engineering, though, gave rise to kinetic art, his innovative mobiles, as well as monumental public sculptures, and artistic expressions as varied as a Braniff jet and a BMW sports coupe. Calder’s sense of humor was evident through his art as well: His whimsical Cirque Calder, a miniature circus fashioned from wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork, and other found objects begun in 1926 continues to delight.

Here are tidbits exemplary of Calder’s art, his inventiveness, and his evident joie de vivre.

Alexander Calder, 1898–1976, American sculptor. Image by Carl Van Vechten, 1947, from Wikipedia.

Artistic Influences. His parents’ artistic genes evidently won out, because Alexander hobnobbed with rather more arty types than engineers. Living in Paris in the Twenties, his friends included Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Piet Mondrian, this last artist urging Calder into abstract art.

Traveling back to America in 1929, Alexander met Louisa James, grandniece of author Henry James and philosopher William James. Alexander and Louisa were married in 1931.

Calder’s Mobiles. As early as 1931, Wikipedia notes, “Calder’s abstract sculptures of discrete movable parts powered by motors were christened ‘mobiles’ by Marcel Duchamp…. Calder’s kinetic sculptures are regarded as being among the earliest manifestations of an art that consciously departed from the traditional notion of the art work as a static object and integrated the ideas of gesture and immateriality as aesthetic factors.”

By 1934, his sculptures “were set in motion by the open air,” Wikipedia recounts. “The wind mobiles featured abstract shapes delicately balanced on pivoting rods that moved with the slightest current of air, allowing for a natural shifting play of forms and spacial relationships.”

During World War II Calder continued to sculpt, but using carved wood as the medium. After the war, he returned to sheet metal, cut into evocative shapes and painted in bold hues. 

Red Mobile, 1956. Painted sheet metal and metal rods, a signature work of Calder at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Arty Talk. One of Calder’s exhibition catalogs included an essay written by Jean Paul Sartre. Philosophers of art, Wikipedia says, interpreted Calder’s wind-driven mobiles “as marking a decisive moment in Modernism’s abandonment of its earlier commitment to the machine as a critical and potentially expressive new element in human affairs.” 

Funny that an M.E.-trained fellow would accomplish this. On the other hand, Calder’s engineering expertise was to show itself in famous mechanized products: When he was approached with the idea of painting a jet in 1972, Calder responded that he did not paint toys. When told it was a real, full-sized airliner, he immediately gave his approval.

Above, Calder’s South-American themed Braniff Douglas DC-8-62. Below, his 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL, the first of 19 BMW Art Car Projects. 

Among 18 other artists in the BMW project were David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol.

Other Outdoor Art. Calder’s monumental sculptures evolved into “stabiles,” outdoor art designed by him on smaller scale, then fabricated by technicians performing the actual metalwork. One of my favorites is in Grand Rapids, Michigan: La Grande Vitesse. This is the first civic sculpture in the U.S. to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

La Grande Vitesse, 1969.

Throughout his artistic career,” Wikipedia notes, “Calder named many of his works in French, regardless of where they were destined for eventual display.”

Cirque Calder. Calder’s Circus was an improvised performance begun during his time in Paris. He would accompany his wire- and found-object acts with narration in French. 

Here’s his lion-tamer act. Click here for the entire Cirque Calder.

The Cirque Calder resides at the Whitney Museum of American Art. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022


  1. Bob Storck
    December 12, 2022

    Note that climate activists have recently attacked Calder and Warhol BMW art cars.

    • simanaitissays
      December 12, 2022

      Jackasses. The report I read said the Warhol car was attacked in Milan in November.
      I can think of a lot more cultural excesses to attack than whimsical car paint jobs.

      • sabresoftware
        December 15, 2022

        They have also defaced paintings. Basically I think that I’d classify them as terrorists. Not sure what they hope to accomplish by this nonsense other than turning the majority of people against them. If they were to get their wish of instantly stopping all economic activity the resulting world war would do far more damage to the environment.

      • Bob Storck
        December 16, 2022

        I wholeheartedly agree, Sabre, and feel this vandalism would be nipped if prosecutors punished them based on the value of the item desecrated, whether or not it was actually harmed … they at least implied intent.
        My grandfather always said, “Fool’s names and fool’s faces … always seen in public places!” These idiots are seeking their chance at fame, a sad commentary on the media today that they’re willing to play into their game. Yes, it does alienate many, but too many today applaud them for “getting back at the man” or whatever the PC term is today for poorly thought out protesting.

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