Alexander Calder

Calder's Circus

On view
Floor 7



Wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps

Overall: 54 × 94 1/4 × 94 1/4in. (137.2 × 239.4 × 239.4 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
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.

Rights and reproductions
© Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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. 


  • The Whitney's Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, Spanish

    Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926-31

    Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926-31


    Bill Irwin: Damas y caballeros, mesdames et messieurs, les damos la bienvenida al circo. A partir de 1926, Calder combinó su fascinación por el movimiento, los animales y la caricatura en Le Cirque Calder

    Narrador: El actor Bill Irwin.

    Bill Irwin: Lo que ven aquí es una serie de actos, cada uno compuesto por diferentes personajes: los acróbatas, una mujer barbuda, un domador de leones y su león. En cada función, Calder operaba las piezas y figuras ante el público, en la misma pista, un acto a la vez. 

    Hacía las gradas con cajones y tablones de madera; alzaba dos postes altos para la cuerda floja y el trapecio; repartía platillos, matracas y otros objetos ruidosos; reproducía discos en el gramófono y brindaba a los invitados un espectáculo nocturno completo. Es lo que podría describirse como la primera instancia de arte interpretativo. 

    A través de Circus, Calder entabló buena amistad con una impresionante lista de artistas, como Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Edgar Varèse, Le Corbusier y Piet Mondrian. Estos miembros del vanguardismo parisino, el avant-garde, valoraban el amor de Calder por la interpretación y el espectáculo: una función de Circus era garantía de pasarse un muy buen rato. Pero los artistas también se veían atraídos por el lado serio de Circus. Una combinación de diversión con muerte y peligro: el lanzador de cuchillos apuntaba a un blanco peligrosamente cerca de su asistente preferida y a veces fallaba; con consecuencias trágicas. Pero Calder acudía a la misma figura femenina en el acto siguiente, un ingenioso toque que el público apreciaba.

    Durante las primeras décadas del siglo veinte, los artistas modernistas en toda Europa buscaron maneras de fusionar el arte y la vida, la tecnología y el diseño. Por lúdico que el espectáculo de Calder pueda parecer, ejemplifica estupendamente estos impulsos del vanguardismo. El hecho de que pusiera los objetos en movimiento, el estado característico de la modernidad, no era un detalle menor para ninguno de sus espectadores. Y cada acto individual estaba diseñado con una gran destreza técnica.

  • America Is Hard to See

    Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31

    Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31


    Narrator: Actor Bill Irwin.

    Bill Irwin: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, mes dames et messieurs, to the circus. Beginning in 1926, Calder combined his fascination with movement, animals, and caricature into Le Cirque Calder

    What you see here are a number of acts, each consisting of different characters—acrobats, a bearded lady, a lion tamer and his lion. When performed, Calder would manipulate the parts and figures before you—in one ring, one act at a time. 

    He would make bleachers from wood crates and planks; erect two tall poles for the high wire and trapeze; hand out cymbals and other noisemakers; cue up records on his gramophone and give his guests a full evening’s entertainment. It was what could be described as the first instance of performance art. 

    Through the Circus, Calder became good friends with an impressive list of artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Edgar Varèse, Le Corbusier, and Piet Mondrian. These members of the Parisian avant-garde appreciated Calder’s love of play and spectacle—a performance of the Circus meant a very good time. But the artists were also drawn to the serious side of the Circus. Fun mixed with death and danger: the knife thrower aiming to hit a target perilously close to his favorite assistant sometimes missed—with tragic results. But Calder would use the same female figure in the next act, a clever touch his audiences appreciated.

    In the first decades of the twentieth century, modernist artists across Europe were searching for ways to merge art and life, technology and design. As playful as Calder’s performance may seem, it beautifully exemplifies these avant-garde impulses. The fact that he put his objects in motion, the characteristic state of modernity, wouldn’t have been lost on any of his observers. And the individual acts were engineered with a great deal of technical skill.

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