Friday, September 10, 2010

Designer of the Month: Alexander Calder

Week 2: the Cirque Calder and wire sculptures

In 1925, a few years after Alexander Calder had moved to New York and decided to commit to becoming an artist, he took a two-week long job with the National Police Gazette, who sent him to sketch circus scenes at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.[1] Calder was greatly inspired.

Alexander Calder, Calder's Circus, 1926-1931. ire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

In 1926, restless for a change of scenery, Calder moved to Paris.[2] Although he only had a few acquaintances from the Art Students League, did not speak French and had very little money, Calder's charm, warmth and humor allowed him to make friends and establish contacts easily.[3] Although Calder rented a studio in Paris, the drawing and painting that he took on as work, which he found uninspiring, caused him to pursue other outlets for his creativity, including creating creatures, both human and animal, out of wood and wire.[4] As Calder recalled of these early pieces, "There was an elephant and a mule. They could be made to stand up on their hind quarters, or heads. Then there were clowns with slots in their feet and claws in their hands; they could balance on a ladder or one foot or one hand."[5] The making of Calder's circuses had begun.

Calder with his Cirque Calder, 1926-31. Photograph by Sacha Stone, 1929. Courtesy of the Calder Foundation.

It soon became apparent to Calder that he could earn a better living for the wire and wood figures he was creating, which visitors to his studio were enchanted by, than from his drawings.[6] The Gould Manufacturing Company of Wisconsin hired Calder to design a new line of action toys, which proved successful and earned him a modest but steady royalty, but which, more importantly, allowed Calder to focus on creating is own work, particularly the Cirque Calder, or Calder's Circus.[7] Designed to be manually manipulated by Calder and small enough to be packed in a large trunk and carried around, the Cirque Calder was created from wire, leather, cloth, and other found materials, and included all of the miniature props, performers and animals recognizable in a traditional circus.[8] The circus was first unveiled in Paris for an audience of friends and peers, but it wasn't long before Calder was presenting the Cirque Calder, an elaborate two-hour performance, in both Paris and New York, to great success.[9] As the critic Michel Seuphor described it:
We sat munching peanuts, perched on the steep wooden tiers, while Calder, below, in the only corner of his studio that was left free, legs apart, brought out his show. What surprised me the most was that this heavy man should be able to manipulate, without breaking them, figurines that appeared so delicate. Not only did he make them turn, dance, jump from one trapeze to another: he had made them himself with his ingenuous fingers...Calder's Circus captivated us by its attention to detail, by the minute observation of the conventions. And we would wildly applaud the tossing, from one man to another, or the acrobats' white handkerchief or the picking up of the dung after the chariot race.[10]
Calder with Josephine Baker (c. 1928), 1929. Courtesy of the Calder Foundation.

After the success of his circus, Calder begun to use wire for other works as well, sculpting portraits of his friends and public figures.[11] One especially notable likeness was that of the American entertainer Josephine Baker, whom Calder sculpted out of a single piece of wire, creating what was essentially a three-dimensional form drawn in space.[12] In 1928, he showed some of these wire "drawings" to Carl Zigrosser of New York's Weyhe Gallery, and was subsequently given his first gallery show.[13] Only one or two of the works were sold, but the show was given great reviews by the press, including Murdock Pemberton of The New York Times, who wrote:
Only geniuses should take art seriously. The others should have more fun with it. Mr. Calder points a moral to those who spend a life hewing stone and then having nothing more than a frog or a water baby. Calder is a deep satirist and shows a human insight missing from ninety-nine per cent of the sculpture turned out today.[14]
Alexander Calder, Kiki de Montparnasse (II), 1930. Wire. Courtesy of the Calder Foundation.

Solo shows in New York, Paris and Berlin followed, as did celebrity. In 1929, a short documentary on Calder and his work was filmed in Berlin as part of an "Artists at Work" series, and in Paris, he was the subject of a short film that showed him at work on his studio on a sculpture of the model Kiki de Montparnasse.[15] Calder's wire sculptures also grew in complexity during this time, including the addition of movable sculptural parts, but it was a visit to the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian that would create a truly decisive change in Calder's work.[16]

[1] The Calder Foundation online, "Biography,", (accessed September 9, 2010).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Howard Greenfeld,
The Essential Alexander Calder, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003), 32.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Ibid., 35-6.

[8] The Calder Foundation online, "Biography,", (accessed September 9, 2010).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Howard Greenfeld,
The Essential Alexander Calder, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003), 41.

[11] The Calder Foundation online, "Biography,", (accessed September 9, 2010).

[12] Howard Greenfeld,
The Essential Alexander Calder, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003), 44-5.

[13] Ibid., 45.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Ibid., 57.

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