The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Alexander Calder

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Alexander Calder (American b. 1898- 1976)

Calder, Alexander, Blue Moon over the Steeple, 1965
Gift of Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr. in Memory of Edward Joseph Gallagher, Ann Hay Gallagher, and Edward Joseph Gallagher III
Sheet metal, wire, paint
© 2013 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1. Biography

“To most people who look at a mobile, it’s no more than a series of flat objects that move. To a few, though, it may be poetry.”

                -Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder was born to artist parents who influenced and encouraged his early artistic explorations. At an early age, Calder demonstrated a curiosity and a sense of inventiveness with tools and found materials by making toys and wire jewelry for his sister’s dolls. His early ability to create and invent originally inspired Calder to study engineering, but after completing school in 1922, he worked odd jobs before enrolling in the Arts Students League in New York City.

In 1930 Calder traveled to Paris where he came in contact with members of the Dada and Surrealist art groups. On a visit to the abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s studio, he became interested in the rectangles of colored paper that Mondrian had tacked up on the studio walls. Calder, inspired by this visit, desired to make these shapes move or “oscillate” in space, and to see the shapes interacting in three dimensions. His result was the mobile, where individual parts float, spin and travel in response to free moving air currents. Calder’s invention of the mobile revolutionized sculpture by integrating the concept of movement into what was once a stationary art form.

Calder’s early childhood sense of playfulness is evidenced in his adult work in that he was most interested in chance movements as well as the viewer’s own imagination. While his work at first seems like pure abstraction, his titles, such as Blue Moon over the Steeple invite our imagination to try and find the moon near the top and the church-like steeple form in the base. Blue Moon is an example of Calder’s standing mobiles, which differed from his hanging mobiles in that these standing works were generally much smaller and obviously had a base that sat on the ground.


Alexander Calder: 1898-1976. Retrieved from http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/calder/realsp/room8a- 7.htm

Calder, A. (1951). What abstract art means to me. Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, 18(3). Retrieved from                 http://www.calder.org/system/downloads/texts/1951-What-Abstract-Art-Means-P0343.pdf

Stokstad, M. (2000). Art: A brief history. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated.

2. History

Immediately after WW I, the United States began a period of isolationism that lasted until the start of WW II in 1941. This attitude had a direct impact on American artists. A greater amount of American artists, like Thomas Hart Benton, referred back to realism in order to document and pay tribute to American life and sought to define a truly American art. Other American artists like Alexander Calder, who were interested in contemporary art had to go to Europe to take part in the modern abstract art  movement.

Historically, sculpture was a static, stable form of solid mass that rested on a base, connecting it to the ground and setting it apart as something special. In that fertile period between the two world wars, the European art world was being challenged on many fronts. Artists like Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, and others rebelled against the status quo and created art from simple shapes and lines, and made abstract compositions that defied convention. Some of these artists also chose to display their works in unusual ways. Calder assimilated this artistic rebellion into his own unique style, creating sculpture that moved and was removed from the base, hanging his works from the air.

Alexander Calder’s works have become familiar visual works of sculpture, found in public squares, buildings and museums around the globe. His invention, the mobile, can be seen above almost every child’s crib in any household. Because of their seeming familiarity today, it is often difficult to understand just how revolutionary his sculptures were in the context of the early twentieth century.


About This Artist: Alexander Calder. Retrieved from http://whitney.org/Collection/AlexanderCalder

Stokstad, M. (2000). Art: A brief history. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated.

3. Writing Exercises


Describe the shapes and forms you see. What might they suggest?

Describe the colors you see. What might they suggest?

What words describe the sense of balance you see?

How do you imagine the sculpture moves? Describe this sense of motion with two words.

Description- Circle Description

This activity works best with students arranged in small groups. One person starts by writing down a brief description of what they see. A second student contributes to the first observation by using a different word or by describing the observation in more detail. The description is added onto again until the entire group has contributed or around until the map is complete. Use the “Descriptive Map” worksheet to document descriptions.

Poetry- Poetry in Motion

Calder’s sculpture was greatly inspired by the Dada art movement. Dadaism was a European-based movement that rejected the tradition of reason and order of classical art and favored the element of chance as the inspiration for art. Use words cut from magazines or newspapers pulled from a word bank (envelope or box) and use to write a poem that describes Calder’s sculpture Blue Moon over Steeple. You can expand from these “chance words” if you need to.

Expository- Visual Art Analysis

Artists, like writers make careful choices about their compositions and are impacted by the time and place in which they work. These factors work together to create meaning in a work of art. Analyze Calder’s sculpture using the Form, Theme, Context Map to uncover what the meaning is and what gives it that meaning.