See It Soon: Alexander Calder

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“American Masters” documentary captures the playfulness and whimsy of one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists. 

In the pantheon of great 20th Century artists, perhaps no one continues to captivate audiences more than Alexander Calder. One look at the latest auction prices for his pieces certainly supports this notion, but there’s even more convincing evidence to be found in a place that most people may not automatically associate with Calder: the baby’s room. For hanging above most of the world’s cribs is Calder’s most popular and lasting artistic contribution, the mobile.

As the outstanding new-to-DVD documentaryAlexander Calder demonstrates, it’s only fitting that a man who lived and loved life with the carefree attitude of a child should forever be connected with the wonderful distraction represented by the ubiquitous moving sculpture he invented. Calder was a man who used his endless supply of creative ambition to make the world a better place, whether it was through his moving toys, his mesmerizing circus, or his monumental outdoor sculptures, and this short film does an excellent job of illustrating Calder’s optimism and deep desire to give the world something magical to witness.

Growing up in a family of artists near the turn of the century and demonstrating a natural ability to make art at an early age, Calder seemed destined to become an artist, even if it didn’t figure into his ideal career plan. But false starts in several odd jobs soon forced him into realizing his destiny, and he learned to apply the engineering education pursued for non-artistic means to his creative craft. Considering the technical complexity underlying many of Calder’s estimated 16,000 pieces, it’s obvious that what appeared to be a time-wasting detour to a career in art ended up providing him with the know-how to make his sculptures seemingly come alive. The film also does an excellent job of showing how Calder was both a visionary and an adaptable artist; he was open to the work of others and was always looking for ways to apply what he liked about others work while still maintaining his own immediately recognizable style. 

Originally filmed in the mid-1990s and aired on PBS in 1998 as part of the “American Masters” series, the film is essential viewing not just because of the rare archival footage of Calder working in his studio but because of the priceless personal stories shared by the people who knew him personally, including family, artist Ellsworth Kelly, and playwright Arthur Miller. Their reminiscences paint the picture of man who not only matched the playfulness and whimsy of his creations, but was also as generous as he was talented.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at

Photo at top: Flamingo (1974)Alexander Calder; located in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago; courtesy Vincent Desjardins, licensed under Creative Commons

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