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Alexander Calder

American, 1898 - 1976

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One of the seminal artists of the twentieth century, Alexander Calder was born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, in 1898. He was the third generation of an accomplished family of artists who made Philadelphia their home, and although Calder pursued his artistic career elsewhere, Philadelphia has always claimed him as a member of the city's artistic progeny. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923), immigrated from Scotland and created some 200 sculptural decorations adorning City Hall-including the much-loved bronze statue of William Penn that stands atop the clock tower. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945), also created numerous sculptures throughout the city and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and is especially noted for his Swann Memorial Fountain at Logan Square.

Calder graduated in 1919 from the Stevens Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. It was in 1923, after a series of assorted jobs, that he entered the Art Students League in New York and embarked upon a career that would change the course of modern sculpture and earn him international renown. Although he worked in a wide range of media throughout his life, Calder is best known for inventing freely moving constructions suspended in air (for which Marcel Duchamp coined the term "mobiles") and for his large freestanding sculptures (dubbed "stabiles" by Jean Arp). By introducing movement into compositions of exceeding delicacy and integrating his love of abstraction into all of his creations, Calder effectively revolutionized sculpture and his work continues to influence the field to this day.

From 1926 to 1929, the artist's miniature wire circus sculpture and performance piece, Cirque, brought him to the attention of the art world's leading figures, including Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, with whom he would develop a deep friendship that, through correspondence, conversations, and exhibitions, ensured the two artists were a constant and integral presence in each other's lives.

Calder's work in metal jewelry was another form of his artistic output, albeit one that is less well known. Throughout his life, however, the artist produced more than 1,800 jewelry works of art, each made entirely by hand. The very first pieces were created in 1906, when Calder was eight years old, to adorn his sister's dolls. These were constructed from pieces of wire he found on the street, leftovers, he later reported, from the workmen who had been splicing electric cables. From 1928, he made jewelry in earnest, and he continued to do so until the end of his life.

Calder's jewelry has the same linear yet three-dimensional aspect as his mobiles, and was composed in a fashion that precisely echoes his creation of sculpture. All of the artist's work was indeed part of the same impulse: to create three-dimensional compositions consisting of either unlikely materials that he collected or small metal objects that he bent, hammered, or chiseled. In fact, he often showed his jewelry with his sculptural works and drawings, thus giving clear evidence that he considered all his artistic activities to be related.

Gifts of Jewelry

In 1929 Calder met Louisa James, a member of a distinguished Boston family, on board a ship bound for New York from Europe. The artist later reported, "Her father had just taken her to Europe to mix with the young intellectual elite. All she met were concierges, doormen, cab drivers-and finally me." Soon after their chance encounter, he made a brass bracelet for Louisa that spelled out "Medusa," to recall her untamed hair on board the ship. They were married not long after, and throughout their marriage, Calder made countless more gifts of jewelry for her-including an engagement ring in 1930: "I thought this would do for a wedding ring. But Louisa merely called this one her 'engagement ring' and we had to . . . purchase a wedding ring for two dollars." Louisa's dressing table became a kind of private shrine to the outpouring of loving gifts made by her husband for her birthdays and their wedding anniversaries. Their grandson Alexander S. C. Rower has said, "When I was a child, her bureau always seemed a mysterious altar."

Calder also fashioned a necklace for his mother, Nanette Lederer Calder's, sixty-fourth birthday in 1930. He made the piece out of string, brass wire, and ancient ceramic shards found in Calvi, Corsica. He wrote, "I meant to write you a birthday letter two days [ago] but I made a necklace instead-having brought along pliers and wires, and found bits of things along the parapets of the citadel, to put into it . . . I have been making a lot more wire jewelry-and think I'll really do something with it, eventually."

Calder created special brooches, rings, and necklaces in silver, brass, and steel wire for all those in his inner circle, in many instances employing wordplay, an inventive manipulation of names and initials, to create personalized pieces for friends and contemporaries such as Georgia O'Keeffe.

Exhibitions and Commercial Appeal

Yet while Calder made numerous gifts of jewelry for his family, his works also had considerable commercial success for their chic yet bohemian allure. One review of a 1937 exhibition held at the Mayor Gallery in London stated, "If the lady of fashion has the wit to see it, she may find that pieces of human ingenuity make rather more distinguished ornaments than Cartier's portable currency." Another review declared, "Women of taste should ask to see some at the Gallery." Soon after, the jewelry was photographed for Harper's Bazaar, and, in 1940, the first commercial show solely devoted to it was organized at the Willard Gallery in New York. A second successful all-jewelry exhibition took place at the gallery in 1941. These well-received exhibitions in New York led to other venues, mainly in the United States. During this period, Calder sent a series of trunk shows to cities across the country, even creating his own shipping boxes.

By the late 1940s-early 1950s, Calder's jewelry was thoroughly embraced by the avant-garde in Paris and New York, with obvious appeal to the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and Mary Rockefeller.

Outdoor Sculpture

In the final decades before his death in 1976, Calder devoted himself increasingly to monumental outdoor sculpture.

In 2001, The Pew Charitable Trusts announced a grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to present a series of outdoor installations of work by the artist along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a grant that enabled the Museum, in collaboration with the Calder Foundation, to install 10 to 15 sculptures on a rotating basis. Sculptures of varying scale were placed in the Rodin Museum garden and on a two-acre parkland site at Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 22nd Street.

The installation is an ongoing changing exhibition, with recent additions of two colorful sculptures: the fiery red Jerusalem Stabile (1976), a mid-size version of the artist's last public monumental sculpture commission, for the State of Israel; and Le chien en trios couleurs (Three-colored Dog), 1973, richly punctuated in red, blue, and black. These works join a group of black stabiles, including Discontinuous (1962); The Rocket (1964); Untitled (Triangles), 1972; Angulaire (1975); and, courtesy of the City of Philadelphia, Three Disks, One Lacking (1968).

Calder Jewelry, 2008

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