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The Engineer Behind Calder’s Art PUBLIC ACCESS

An Art Historian Investigates the Technical Grounding of the Sculptor’s Imagination

[+] Author Notes

A professor of art history at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick, is the author of Alexander Calder (Cambridge University Press, 1997, paperback edition).

Mechanical Engineering 120(12), 53-57 (Dec 01, 1998) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.1998-DEC-2


This article reviews the significance of Alexander Calder’s, a renowned sculptor, technical and engineering expertise that has become increasingly clear in recent years. Calder’s most important innovation in the development of wire sculpture was the suspension of his wire forms from a single wire thread. A small wood-and-wire caricature of a monkey was the first, soon followed by several caricatures of Josephine Baker, the star of La Revue N è gre at the Folies Bergè re and an international sensation in 1925. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Calder was primarily interested in problem solving, in experimenting with materials, mechanical systems, and devices. Calder’s studio was like a laboratory, with experimental works piled into corners or suspended from hooks in the ceiling. The most engaging aspect of Calder’s sculpture was its interaction with space. Mobiles participated in lively dialogues with their environs, reacting to air currents and human touch.


Alexander Calder is renowned as the creator of two of the greatest sculptural innovations of this century: mobiles, those magical moving sculptures hanging in major art museums and modernist building lobbies across the globe, and stabiles, the large-scale abstract constructions that lighten the mood of otherwise stark public spaces in many cities. Few art lovers know, however, that prior to setting out on his highly successful artistic career, Calder received an engineering education (predominantly in mechanics) from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

To the engineer’s eye, Calder’s mechanical background might be something less than a revelation, given the evident technical proficiency exhibited by the thousands of artworks-ranging from matchbox- size mobiles to seven-story-tall stabiles he produced. Notorious for his reluctance to comment on his own work, Calder has for several decades fascinated art historians and critics seeking to identify the sources of his artistic vision. These analyses have naturally focused on influential modern art movements of the 1920s and 1930s, including constructivism, surrealism, Dada, and the Bauhaus school, as Calder’s main creative antecedents.

Though this conventional interpretive approach has yielded many useful insights, the significance of the sculptor’s technical and engineering expertise has become increasingly cl ear in recent years. The ways Calder combined his engineering skills and personal ingenuity with his knowledge of the avant-garde deserve closer consideration than they have received. Calder’s achievement shows how mechanical engineering principles can have an important, if unexpected, effect on fields outside the profession, particularly on the development of a unique artistic conception.

Born 100 years ago, "Sandy" Calder was the son and grandson of well-known sculptors who worked in the traditional Beaux-Arts style. Though immersed in an artistic milieu at home, Calder’s innate talent for working with mechanical apparatus and materials was encouraged by both his parents as well as by his father’s brother, Ronald Calder, the mechanically inclined member of the family.

For example, when Calder was nine years old and living in Pasadena, Calif., his uncle Ron helped him construct a special coaster wagon. After this experience, the youngster was eager to set up his own workshop. At that point, according to Calder’s autobiography, " I got my first tools, and was given the cellar with its windows as a workshop. Mother and Father were all for my efforts to build things myself ..." There, and in subsequent workshops in other homes, the young Calder continued his experiments with wire, sheet metal, and wood.

Later, while Calder was a student at Lowell High School in San Francisco, he often visited his father’s studio on the grounds of the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 , where Calder senior was overseeing the design and production of commemorative sculpture. Sandy recalled his visit to the studio in a large iron workshop: [IJ was very much interested in the pointing machine for enlarging small sculpture. This consisted of two parallel needles, one longer than the other, according to the enlargement. It worked with a parallelogram. The small sculpture and the framework for the large sculpture were placed on two turntables, which turned together through sprockets and bicycle chain ... I’d be particularly fascinated by the mechanics, the rotating motions and the parallel needles of the process. (Calder, Autobiography)

Calder’s attraction to this pointing device would actually lead, years later, to a motorized construction entitled Pantograph (1933). But this recollection of his youth also indicates that in 1915 he was more interested in tinkering with machines than in claiming his position as the third generation of Calder sculptors in America.

Eventually, Calder’s fascination with construction and industrial materials led him to decide to study mechanical engineering. His parents were pleased; they had discouraged their children from becoming artists, because it was a life filled with hardships and economic uncertainty. "I guess that was the only profession I had heard of except for ’artist,’ and I like mechanics," wrote Calder in the 1950s. In 1915, Calder enrolled at the Stevens Institute, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering four years later. College records indicate that the future artist excelled in mechanical drawing, descriptive geometry, mechanical engineering laboratory, and applied kinetics.

His training in physics and kinetics served him well in his later experiments with motorized devices and with. wind-driven mobiles made from materials of varying weights and densities. In the few written statements he made about his early mobiles, Calder ascribed some of his concepts of motion to the influential Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, the Italian futurists, and the noted cubist Fernand Lèger’s film Ballet Mècanique, but he used scientific terminology to explain his method of constructing kinetic devices. The technical precision and the equilibrium found in Calder’s later motorized and wind-driven mobiles are partly indebted to the engineering curriculum at Stevens.

After graduation, Sandy Calder tried many different jobs, including an assistantship to a hydraulics engineer. Unfortunately, none of them proved satisfactory. As his friend Elizabeth Hawes wrote in 1928, Calder " had to spend a lot of time finding out he wasn’t an engineer." For instance, "In June 1922 ... Calder found a position as a fireman on the passenger ship H.F Alexander, traveling from New York to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. His mechanical ingenuity was put to use. During the voyage, Calder rigged up a baffle to direct fresh air toward him as he worked in the boiler room." It was on this trip that the "wonders of the universe" were impressed up on him. He writes in his autobiography: "It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch—a coil of rope—I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system."

According to Calder, he made the final decision to study art after seeking employment with a Canadian logging engineer, a friend of his father’s, who advised him to do what he really wanted to do. Although none of the positions he had found as an engineer really satisfied him, some would prove useful in his later work.

Decades later, for example, Calder would compare his mobiles designed for the open air to sailing vessels, and in his late years he constructed giant stabiles by using templates like those used in shipyards.

Despite choosing an artistic career, Calder remained very much the engineer. In 1925, he needed a timepiece for the small bedroom of his apartment in Manhattan, and instead of simply purchasing a clock, he designed a wire rooster to use as a sundial. In his autobiography, he recalled: " I had no clock and faced south, so I made a sundial with a piece of wire-a wire rooster on a vertical rod with radiating lines indicating the hours. I’d made things out of wire before-jewelry, toys-but this was my first attempt to represent an animal in’ wire."

These playful wire animals and figures occupied him for the next five years and beyond. Calder’s cleverly designed creatures and characters, toy-like works that today might be called "action figures" from their uncanny ability to ape natural postures and motions, gained particular notice in Paris, where he now made regular visits.

Calder’s amusing creations were able to mimic a frog’s jump, or the way a duck bobs forward. Eventually, the artist assembled a troupe of these wire sculptures into his Circus, a miniature wire-frame big top populated by delightful carnival performers and circus animals, which Calder brought to life in impromptu performances in his apartment (and for which he some-times charged a fee to pay the rent).

Soon, the American expatriate’s exuberant Circus nights became a much sought- after diversion for the Parisian avant-garde.

In an article for the New York Herald in 1927 , Calder wrote: "It seems that during all of this time I could never forget my training at Stevens, for I started experimenting with toys in a mechanical way. I could not experiment with a mechanism, as it was too expensive and too bulky, so I built miniature instruments. From that the toy idea suggested itself to me, so I figured I might as well turn my efforts to something that would bring remuneration."

According to another American artist, Clay Spohn, Calder received several commissions for commercial work during his initial stay in Paris:

Calder got an idea for a mechanical display piece for a cleaning and pressing establishment on the Boulevard Raspail .. . It was made of wire and cardboard with a clock attachment so that it would operate continuously. The cardboard was attached to the wire, which in turn was attached to the clock in some way. On one piece of cardboard there was painted a man bending over with a surprised look on his face and his arms and hands outstretched. This was a cutout to fit the dimensions of the man. Then there was a another piece of cardboard cut to resemble just a leg and foot (without showing where it came from). Every so often. the leg and foot would move up and kick the man bending over-in the seat of the pants, causing the man to be lifted off the ground. It was a very humorous sort of thing. Just the sort of thing the French would ’be amused with. And it did attract considerable attention.

In a similar case, the mischievous Calder devised a wire dog that he attached to a spigot in Spanish sculptor Jose de Creeft’s studio. The dog lifted its hind leg when the water was turned on.

Calder’s most important innovation in the development of wire sculpture was the suspension of his wire forms from a single wire thread. A small wood-and-wire caricature of a monkey was the first, soon followed by several caricatures of Josephine Baker, the star of La Revue Negre at the Folies Bergère and an international sensation in 1925. The American born Baker had come to Paris at the age of 19, and she startled European audiences with her uninhibited sexuality and exuberant dancing.

Calder intended the supple wire body to be free to quiver, sway, and rotate at will, an apt parallel to the agility and sensuality of actual performances by the "Ebony Venus." These suspended wire constructions took Calder one step closer to the creation of the wind-driven mobiles of the 1930s. Even before he began composing abstract elements to form mobiles, Calder had taken into account the delicate equilibrium the sculpture would need to hang properly and move freely. It was Calder’s first essay in kineticism, an interest that occupied him for decades thereafter.

Contact with members of Abstraction-Creation, a Paris-based artists’ group that Calder joined in 1931, and his friendship with artists such as the abstract painter Joan Mirò, the scu1ptor Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp undoubtedly provided the catalyst for his experimentation with an abstract idiom. But there are other factors to be considered in the analysis of Calder’s early preference for cosmic imagery and his rapid development of a mature aesthetic based on static and kinetic elements.

Calder often acknowledged that his first impulse to work in the abstract resulted from a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio in the fall of 1930. Several weeks after his visit to the atelier of the Dutch abstract artist, Calder made his first abstract constructions. In Mondrian’s studio the American had seen a white wall with cardboard rectangles of varying colors tacked upon it. This wall actually impressed him more than Mondrian’s paintings, and Calder proposed that the rectangles could be made "to oscillate in different directions, and at different amplitudes." The visit proved to be the "shock that started things," as he said later.

After the 1930s, the most innovative and resourceful decade of Calder’s career, images of the cosmos dominated his artistic production and were repeatedly mentioned in’ the artist’s statements about his work. "From the beginning of my abstract work, even when it might not have seemed so, I felt there was no better model for me to choose than the Universe," he wrote in the Museum of Modern Art Bulletin in 1951.

When Calder decided to produce plastic models of the universe, he examined existing astronomical instruments as a basis for his personal conception, while maintaining an interest in recent scientific speculation. Newspaper headlines of the early 1930s were full of reports of astronomical discoveries, such as the first sightings of Pluto, numerous asteroids, and other galaxies, not to mention startling evidence of the expansion of the universe and Einstein’s theory of relativity. The sculptor also allowed that he had been fascinated by "eighteenth-century toys demonstrating the planetary system." These armillary spheres and orreries may have come to his attention during visits to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where Calder was born and where he spent many of his childhood years.

In reply to a query posed by curators at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Calder said: I think at the time [1930] and practically ever since, the underlying sense of fOl1n in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof For that is a rather large model to work from.

What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounding and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source for form. I would have them deployed, some nearer together and some at immense distances. And great disparity among all the qualities of these bodies, and their motions as well. A very exciting moment for me was at the planetarium-when the machine was run fast for the purpose of explaining its operation: a planet moved along a straight line, then suddenly made a complete loop of 360 degrees off to one side, and then went off in a straight line in its original direction [epicyclic motion]." (Museum of Modem Art Bulletin, Spring 1951

For the first number of Abstraction-Creation, Art Non statement to accompany a reproduction of Little Universe, an open wire orb resembling an armillary sphere:

How does art come into being? Out of volumes, motion , spaces carved out within the surrounding space, the universe. Out of different masses, tight, heavy, middling, achieved by variations of size or color. Out of directional lines- vectors representing motion, velocity, acceleration, energy, etc.-lines which form significant angles and directions, making up one or several totalities. Spaces or volumes, created by the slightest opposition to their masses, or penetrated by vectors, traversed by momentum. None of this fixed.

Each element can move, shift, or sway back and forth in a changing relation to each of the other elements in the universe. Thus, they reveal not only isolated moments, but a physical law or variation among the elements of life. Not extractions, but abstractions. Abstractions which resemble no living things except by their manner of reacting.

Within a year of the visit to Mondrian, Calder’s concept of abstract forms in motion was fully realized with the creation of the mobile, but even his initial constructions manifest a radical change in his work. The witty wire caricatures of animals and acrobats were abandoned for spheres, arcs, and constellations accompanied by analytical descriptions that confirmed the scientific orientation of his vision, for Calder combined his interest in cosmic imagery with the technical mastery of physical principles that resulted from his training as ’a mechanical engineer, At the time, he wrote: "Why not plastic forms in motion? Not a simple transitory or rotary motion but several motions of different types, speeds, and amplitudes composing to make a resultant whole. Just as one can compose colors, or forn15, so one can compose motions."

In the 1930s, Calder experimented with motorized sculptures driven by reconditioned electric motors he had salvaged from broken phonographs and the like. "With a mechanical drive," he said in 1937, "you can control the thing like the choreography in a ballet and superimpose various movements: a great number, even, by means of cams and other mechanical devices." These recycled electric drives were unreliable, however, and this problem later led him toward building wind-driven works.

Henri Gabriel, a younger sculptor who also created suspended mobiles, observed that "Calder’s hanging mobiles use balancing volumes and corresponding weights of the parts, as well as the mechanics of lever calculation, to make mobiles coherent works of art.

Alexander Calder, with his technical knowledge and engineering expertise, perfected the elements of the mobile and thus furthered the development of a technical-artistic dualism in this medium."

It was during this period that Calder became interested in loan Mirò’s abstract "biomorphic" forms. One critic noted the appearance of a " new organic strain in Calder’s art that alludes to forms in the natural world without being tied specifically to any one of them." This biomorphic motif survived in Calder’s art until the end of his life.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish government asked Calder to contribute a work for the Paris Exhibition of 1937. The Loyalists wanted to highlight their stand against Franco’s siege of the Almaden region of Spain, which supplied more than 60 percent of the world’s mercury. These mercury mines served as a symbol of the Country’s national pride. The idea was to build a fountain in which mercury flowed, rather than water. Mercury Fountain, Calder’s first major commission and a popular attraction at the exposition, was installed near Pablo Picasso’s mural-sized Guernica.

In the Stevens Indicator, the alumni magazine of the Stevens Institute, the artist recalled his triumph with typical Calder humor: "The fountain proved quite a success, but a great deal was due, of course, to the curious quality of the mercury, whose density induced people to throw coins upon its surface." The Mercury Fountain represents a culmination of Calder’s use of his engineering skills.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Calder was primarily interested in problem solving, in experimenting with materials, mechanical systems, and devices. Calder ’s studio was like a laboratory, with experimental works piled into corners or suspended from hooks in the ceiling. One day in the Roxbury, Conn., studio, I found a dusty, mouse-eaten carton of sketches from the 1930s. In these preliminary studies for motorized mobiles, Calder had made careful measurements for each kinetic element and h ad determined the direction of motion. The precision of these drawings confirmed my suspicion that the playful movements of his constuctions were initially as much a product of calculation as of intuition. In Calder’s early years as an artist, it seems he was systematic in his approach to "composing motions." Later, having perfected his technical methods, he became ever more inventive with his moving sculpture.

The most engaging aspect of Calder’s sculpture was its interaction with space. Mobiles participated in lively dialogues with their environs, reacting to air currents and human touch. The stabiles enfolded and incorporated spatial volume. As Calder put it: " I paint with shapes."

Alexander Calder, 1937.

Grahic Jump LocationAlexander Calder, 1937.

Aztec Josephine Baker, 1942.

Grahic Jump LocationAztec Josephine Baker, 1942.

Form Against Yellow, 1936.

Grahic Jump LocationForm Against Yellow, 1936.

Black Beast, 1940.

Grahic Jump LocationBlack Beast, 1940.

Steel Fish, 1934.

Grahic Jump LocationSteel Fish, 1934.

Finny Fish, 1948.

Grahic Jump LocationFinny Fish, 1948.

Aluminum leaves, Red Post, 1941.

Grahic Jump LocationAluminum leaves, Red Post, 1941.

Copyright © 1998 by ASME
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