Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

Alexander Calder's untilted 1976 mobile at the National Gallery of Art

Calder's Two Discs (1965) at the Hirshhorn Museum

Alexander Calder

Alexander Milne Calder's 37-foot-tall bronze statue of William Penn atop City Hall Tower in Philadelphia. Photo by G. Widman, 2000

Alexander Stirling Calder's cast-stone statue of Marcus Whitman, 1897, at the Presbyterian Historical Society
Photos by the author

Alexander Stirling Calder's cast-stone statue of Francis Makemie

Alexander Stirling Calder's sun dial, ca. 1906, in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Detail of Alexander Stirling Calder's sun dial
Calder Country
by Phyllis Tuchman

This weekend thousands of people will get a glimpse of some artwork by Alexander Calder. Travelers at Kennedy International Airport will move under a large Calder mobile, as will those passing through the Pittsburgh International Airport. Concert-goers in the Aura Magna auditorium in Caracas, Venezuela, will sit beneath dozens of acoustical panels shaped and colored by Calder in 1952.

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hundreds of museum goers will wait in line to see "The Quest for Immortality, Treasures of Ancient Egypt" near the red, yellow and blue biomorphic forms that comprise an immense mobile, the last public commission completed before the artist's death at the age of 77.

Across the Mall at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, countless other visitors on their way to view "Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950" will walk past an impressive steel sculpture at the entrance to the famous torus-shaped building.

And this is just a random sampling of works on display around the world. Calder's mobiles, stabiles, wood carvings, tapestries, gouaches, prints and such are ubiquitous.

Travelers, preoccupied with their luggage, may be excused for ignoring the Calder in their vicinity. But these days, visitors to Calder Country, aka Philadelphia, Pa., will find it all but impossible to overlook a work of art by Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1924), Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945) or Alexander ("Sandy") Calder (1898-1976). They are everywhere.

Grandfather Calder, a Scot who arrived in Philadelphia in 1868, executed almost 250 figures, animals and decorative motifs for the Philadelphia City Hall, a stylish civic facility that rivals government buildings anywhere in both stature and solemnity. When Alexander I modeled the William Penn that stands atop the dome of this French-inspired edifice, it was the largest statue ever cast in bronze in the United States.

Over on the greensward by Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, you also can find, superbly crafted by the Calder family patriarch, an equestrian sculpture of General George Gordon Meade, the Civil War leader. In a short description of his career, grandfather Calder wrote, "Since 1887 my work has mainly been colossal."

Ever since the Philadelphia Museum of Art installed Sandy Calder's Ghost, a mobile, in its great hall, Philadelphians have enjoyed pointing out how you can view the father, the son and the holy ghost from the PMA's "Rocky Steps" to City Hall -- Alexander II's Swan Fountain is installed midway at Logan Circle.

Over Labor Day weekend, visitors to the city can see several works by Alexander the Third along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. With support from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the cooperation of the Calder Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum, Ordinary (1969) is installed on the Parkway between 21st and 22nd Streets, the future site of the Calder Museum, currently being designed by architect Taddeo Ando. Across the road, in the courtyard of the Rodin Museum, another three metal constructions are on display: Three Discs, One Lacking from 1969 and The Pagoda and Snow Plow, both 1963.

Because the nature of sculpture changed radically during the years Alexander II was active as an artist, his work is less well known than the statues by his father and the stabiles by his son. But if you enjoy tracking down unusual art projects or knowing all there is to learn about famous artists such as Sandy Calder, there are a number of figures by Alexander Stirling Calder scattered around Philadelphia that are accessible by car.

Six of the 12 nine-foot, cast-stone statues Alexander the Second executed in 1897 and which once graced the facade of the Witherspoon Building at 1319 Walnut and Juniper now stand in the garden of the Presbyterian Historical Society. This building, located in the Society Hill area at the corner of Fifth and Lombard Street, houses the national archives of the Presbyterian Church, and Calder's sculptures represent figures that played important roles in the history of the church. These include Francis Makemie (ca. 1658-1708), John Witherspoon (1723-1794), Samuel Davies (1723-1761), James Caldwell (1734-1781) and Marcus Whitman (1802-1847).

In addition to his church activities, Witherspoon was a president of the College of New Jersey, a delegate to the Continental Congress and the only active member of the clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence. Keeping in mind that these statues were made to be seen several stories above eye level, you can see how Alexander II had a knack for broad characterization, descriptive period costume and variation of pose.

A sun dial by Alexander Stirling Calder, copyrighted in 1906, is located in the West Park section of Fairmount Park near Belmont and Montgomery. In the Botanical Gardens, the caryatid figures that support astrological signs and the bronze dial are equidistant from the statue of Goethe and the Japanese Tea House. The nudes -- one with grapes; another, apples -- are fetching Gibson Girls. They are a lovely update of the Wallace Fountains located across Paris and in front of the Wallace Collection in London. The astrological signs belong to a long history of relief sculpture going back to the Medieval period.

If nothing else, all this shows how Sandy Calder was versed in the fundamentals of his mtier from a young age. If you have a sentimental side, you can ponder how Alexander Stirling Calder represents just one of the many talented artists who thought this too shall pass as modern art blanketed the museums and galleries.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and the Lancet.