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Alexander Calder was born into a family of artists. His mother painted portraits professionally, and his father and grandfather were both sculptors. Family friends recall seeing Calder at age five making little figures out of wood and wire—materials that would become staples of his mature work. Nevertheless, he first pursued a career in mechanical engineering, graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919. Four years later, he rekindled an interest in art, studying with Ashcan School artists such as John Sloan and George Luks at the Art Students League in New York, and traveling to Paris in 1926. Calder’s early success sprang from a playful combination of performance, art, and sculpture. In Paris, he made small, articulated animals in wood and wire and then the first figures for his miniature Calder’s Circus. A friend suggested he try making art entirely out of wire. Calder took up the challenge, and began making wire portraits that approximated the loose lines of a sketch in three-dimensional space. Early portraits included performer Josephine Baker and artist Fernand Léger.
In 1930, Calder visited the Paris studio of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, where he was particularly impressed with a group of colored cardboard shapes pinned to the studio wall that Mondrian continually repositioned for compositional investigations. The encounter inspired Calder to start making abstract sculpture and prompted him to explore the possibilities of movement in art. He began experimenting with planes of color hanging from wire, carefully balanced and turned with cranks and motors. He called them “mobiles,” a term coined by his friend, artist Marcel Duchamp. He soon abandoned these mechanical systems when he realized that the delicately balanced mobiles could move independently, turned only by the movement of air.
In 1932—the same year that Calder showed his mobiles for the first time—he began to make another type of sculpture that consisted of metal sheets painted in primary colors and cut into abstract shapes. Artist Jean Arp named them “stabiles.” The two forms—mobile and stabile—became the bedrock of Calder’s work. In the 1960s and 70s, Calder focused his energies on a series of commissions for several colossal mobiles and stabiles for public spaces around the world, including the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York, and Federal Center Plaza in Chicago, among others. Calder died in 1976, just weeks after the Whitney opened Calder’s Universe, a major retrospective of his work.