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A portrait of the artist Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was born in 1898, in Lawton, Pennsylvania. Being the son and grandson of practicing artists, Calder was encouraged to create at a young age and often made toys out of wire and metal. At age 17, Calder enrolled in the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919. After working as a hydraulics and automotive engineer, Calder enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City in 1923, where he took classes in etching and lithography. Soon thereafter, he accepted an illustration position at the National Police Gazette, sending him to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to sketch circus scenes for two weeks in 1925. The circus became a lifelong interest of his, and after moving to Paris in 1926, he created Cirque Calder —an assemblage of miniature performers, animals, and props, manually manipulated by Calder, which showcased in both New York and Paris to much success. In 1928, Calder was given his first solo gallery show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. This exhibition was soon followed by others in New York, Paris, and Berlin. After visiting Piet Modrian’s studio in Paris in 1930, Calder began to focus on abstraction and later joined and exhibited with the Abstraction-Création group. It was also in Paris that he took up printmaking, after befriending Stanley William Hayter, an expatriate British artist and influential printmaker. In 1931, Calder began to create his first truly kinetic sculptures. Many of these early objects moved by motors and were dubbed “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp (in French, mobile refers to both “motion” and “motive”). Eventually, Calder abandoned the motors and fashioned sculptures that moved with the air’s currents. Jean Arp named these new works “stabiles.” When the United States entered World War II, Calder applied for entry to the Marine Corps but was rejected. He continued to create using wood since metal was in short supply due to the war. His first retrospective was held in 1938 at the George Walter Vincent Smith Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. Another retrospective followed in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp. Calder was the youngest artist ever to whom the museum had dedicated a full-career survey, which was so popular that it was extended into 1944. In 1952, Calder represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, winning the grand prize for sculpture. After retrospectives at the Tate Gallery, Guggenheim Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1960s and 70s, Calder was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Bicentennial Artist Award from the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1976. He died that same year, at 78 years old.