Alexander Calder was born in Pennsylvania in 1898, the son and grandson of well known sculptors. His mother also was an artist — she painted portraits.
But some equally important influences came after he moved to Paris in 1926. That year he met a toy merchant who urged him to make toys. He later created his miniature “Cirque Calder,” made from found objects including string, wire, cloth, and rubber. When he returned to the United States the next year he began designing kinetic toys, a precursor of his large mobiles and later stabiles for which he is now famous.
In 1929 Calder returned to Paris for his first solo show of wire sculpture. In 1930 he visited the studio of Piet Mondrian — an encounter with abstract art that, he said, “shocked” him.
Today visitors to the Princeton University Art Museum can see one of Calder’s watercolors — “The Two Arrows” — as part of the American watercolors exhibit. His monumental stabile, “Five Disks: One Empty,” is located a short walk away, in Fine Hall Plaza.
Calder spoke on the relationship between sculpture and painting in the catalog for a 1933 exhibit at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts:
“The sense of motion in painting and sculpture has long been considered as one of the primary elements of the composition.
“The Futurists prescribed for its rendition. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending the stairs’ is the result of the desire for motion. Here he has also eliminated representative form. This avoids the connotation of ideas which would interfere with the success of the main issue — the sense of movement.
“Fernand Leger’s film, ‘Ballet Mecanique,’ is the result of the desire for a picture in motion. “Therefore, why not plastic forms in motion? Not a simple translatory 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 forms, so one can compose motions.
“The two motor driven ‘mobiles’ which I am exhibiting are from among the more successful of my earliest attempts at plastic objects in motion. The orbits are all circular arcs or circles. The supports have been painted to disappear against a white background to leave nothing but the moving elements, their forms and colors, and their orbits, speeds and accelerations.
“Wherever there is a main issue the elimination of other things which are not essential will make for a stronger result. In the earlier static abstract sculptures I was most interested in space, vectoral quantities, and centers of differing densities.
“The esthetic value of these objects cannot be arrived at by reasoning. Familiarization is necessary.”
Alexander Calder, “The Two Arrows,” 1966. Watercolor on wove paper. Gift of Franklin H. Kissner. From the Painting on Paper exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum.