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Alexander Calder

Calder’s Circus

1926–31

Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31  83.36.1-95
Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31. Wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps, 54 × 94 1/4 × 94 1/4 in. (137.2 × 239.4 × 239.4 cm) overall, dimensions variable. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from a public fundraising campaign in May 1982. One half the funds were contributed by the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust. Additional major donations were given by The Lauder Foundation, the Robert Lehman Foundation Inc., the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation Inc., an anonymous donor, The T. M. Evans Foundation Inc., MacAndrews & Forbes Group Incorporated, the DeWitt Wallace Fund Inc., Martin and Agneta Gruss, Anne Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller, the Simon Foundation Inc., Marylou Whitney, Bankers Trust Company, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth N. Dayton, Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz, Irvin and Kenneth Feld, Flora Whitney Miller. More than 500 individuals from 26 states and abroad also contributed to the campaign  83.36.1-95 For Teachers
© 2009 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph © Whitney Museum of American Art.

about this work

After moving to Paris in 1926, Alexander Calder began to fabricate dozens of tiny figures and props for what would become his most beloved work—titled in French Cirque Calder, and in English Calder’s Circus. Making use of simple, available materials such as wire, wood, metal, cloth, cork, fabric, and string, he constructed ingeniously articulated animals, clowns, and acrobats. In total, the circus consists of an elaborate troupe of over seventy miniature figures and animals, nearly 100 accessories such as nets, flags, carpets, and lamps, and over thirty musical instruments, phonographic records, and noisemakers. In Paris, Calder’s audience would sit on a low bed or crates, munching peanuts and using the noisemakers while Calder choreographed, directed, and performed Calder’s Circus, narrating the actions in English or French. Accompanied by music and lighting, performances could last as long as two hours. Calder’s Circus brought him renown in Paris as he staged it for artist colleagues and friends, including Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, and Marcel Duchamp. These performances also introduced the kineticism that would become the defining characteristic of Calder’s art from the 1930s onward.

Audio

Audio guide stop for Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926-31

Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31  83.36.1-95
Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31  83.36.1-95

Director’s Tour Audio Guide Stop for Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31

October 30, 2008
Open Studio: Conserving Calder

Calder’s Circus (1926-31) is one of the Whitney’s most beloved artworks and a seminal piece in Calder’s oeuvre. Eleonora Nagy, a conservator specializing in modern and contemporary sculpture who worked with the Circus, speaks about her techniques and approach to conserving the work.

Open Studio allows visitors to engage with artists and practitioners in the galleries through performance and public participation.

look closer

What is it like to be at a circus? What does it smell, look, or sound like?

Why do you think Alexander Calder wanted to create his own circus?

What kinds of characters did Calder include in his circus?

How do you think he made his figures?

How does this look similar or different to a circus you’ve been to?

Activities

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Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31  83.36.1-95 For Teachers

Calder’s Circus consists of an elaborate troupe of over seventy diminutive figures and animals, nearly one hundred accessories such as carpets and lamps, and over thirty musical instruments, phonographic records, and noisemakers. The audience would sit on a low bed or crates, munching peanuts and using Alexander Calder’s noisemakers while he choreographed, directed, and performed Calder’s Circus act by act, each a complete narrative scene. Accompanied by music and lighting, performances could last as long as two hours while trapeze artists flew through the air, a strongman slowly lifted a barbell, and acrobats catapulted through space. 

Divide your students into small groups. Ask each group to come up with a list of possible characters, performers, and animals they might find at a circus. As a class, collect their ideas. Ask them to reflect further on what the circus might look like, or where it might take place. What sights, sounds, and smells might they expect? What might be surprising about a circus performance?

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