World on a Wire

Alexander Calder’s Kingdom of Toys

With the exception of a childhood self-portrait in crayon – which, not incidentally, depicts the artist happily at work (play?) with various tools – Alexander Calder’s earliest documented works are toys. Browsing the Calder Foundation’s archives chronologically, one encounters the brass Dog and Duck created by a nine or ten year old Calder, precocious figures formally classified as “Wire Sculpture,” as well as a slightly later Animal Zoo Puzzle created around 1911 and filed under “Toy.” An interlude of sorts follows, with more traditional oil-on-canvas self-portraits and scenes of social realism. But then in 1925, Calder returns to his earliest dual concerns of animalia and engineering, creating a menagerie of ink-on-paper animals and pencil drawings of circus tent rigging. Two years later, he would begin work on his legendary Cirque Calder, combining his wire “drawings in space” with found materials and mechanical genius for an evolving toy of mythic proportions.

“I started experimenting with toys in a mechanical way,” Calder recounted to the New York Herald in 1927, “I could not experiment with mechanism as it was too expensive and too bulky so I built miniature instruments. From that the toy idea suggested itself to me so I figured I might as well turn my efforts to something that would bring remuneration. From then on I have constructed several thousand workable toys.”

Calder and his wife Louisa purchased their Roxbury, Connecticut farmhouse in 1933, a change of scenery that would significantly impact the trajectory of Calder’s imagination and subsequent works. Jed Perl writes in his biography that within a year of buying their property, Calder was making mobiles “meant to stand out-of-doors, their movements as a response to the wind currents that animated the Calders’ eighteen acres.” Calder was incredibly prolific at his rural studio, eventually requiring an additional studio whose design and construction he entrusted to his neighbor Clifford Hirsch.

Calder and Hirsch would become lifelong friends who shared a relationship of mutual respect, and whose families frequently spent time together. When Hirsch’s son, Calvin, was a toddler, he would play outside while his father and Calder drank Ballantine beers in the artist’s studio. It was during this time that Calder made Untitled (Pull Toy) for the young boy, as well as a second Untitled (Push Toy). As with his early Cirque creations, Calder made both toys from repurposed tin cans and wire, ingeniously transforming ordinary metal into deceptively simple, sculptural objects of motion and play. Calvin was encouraged to use these gifts whenever Calder came to visit; the rest of the time they were protected in the family’s attic storage.

Untitled (Pull Toy) is remarkable for its synthesis of Calder’s animating creative concerns – like his earliest creations, it is fundamentally a toy made to be used and enjoyed by a real child, constructed with the artist’s signature materials and resourcefulness. Unlike the Cirque and many of his toys, however, the pull toy is not figurative and instead evidences Calder’s later draw towards abstraction and kinetic sculpture; just as well as Untitled (Pull Toy) could be rolled along the ground, so too could it be suspended in the air to dance and play with the wind.

Alexander Calder

Born in 1898 to Nanette Lederer Calder and Alexander Stirling Calder, a painter and a sculptor respectively, Alexander Calder was encouraged to be creative and make things by hand. As a child he made gifts for his family and jewelry for his sister’s dolls. In 1915, Calder attended Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey graduating in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering because his parents didn’t want him to struggle as an artist. After completing school, Calder work a myriad of jobs including draftsman for Edison Company, a staff member at Lumber magazine, coloring maps for a hydraulics engineer and timekeeper for a logging camp.

In the spring of 1922 Calder attended night classes in drawing and the following year he decides to pursue a career as a painter. By 1925 Calder had his first art exhibition and in 1926 he made his first sculptures out of wood and wire. Calder relocated to Paris, socializing with the Parisian avant-garde, and started making mechanical toys and abstract sculptures. His kinetic works, a departure from traditional sculpture, became known as ‘mobiles’, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp.

Calder’s artistic endeavors ranged from mobiles to stabiles (static sculptures) both small and large, to jewelry and paintings. Today his works can be found in numerous museum collections around the world including The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

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