Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

On Meeting Alexander Calder: An Essay

Published onJan 30, 2022
On Meeting Alexander Calder: An Essay

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky, a staff photographer for Boston University for over 40 years.

He wore a hardhat and mustard-colored overalls, a working man’s uniform like the other men on the site. His demeanor said he was the one in charge. A small crew of younger guys looked to him for direction as their towering crane slowly inched elephantine slabs of curved, unpainted, unburnished steel into a position that only he seemed to know was correct.

A chill, bright early spring day was unfolding in Boston. To be more exact, the scene was taking place on the Cambridge side of the Charles River but for those of us who live or went to school here the two cities are linked in our minds like the bridges that span the muddy waters dividing them. A concrete slab between the Chemistry and Earth Sciences Building in the middle of the newly christened McDermott Court on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided the stage for this drama.

Cars raced behind me along this stretch of Memorial Drive reminding me that I should be on my way to my waitressing job at the Sloan School of Business Faculty Club. It was 1966, a crucial moment between my junior and senior years at Boston University. A time when I teetered between thinking of myself as a student or fearlessly embracing a full-fledged identity as an artist with all the risks and uncertainty such a choice demands.

I raised my hand, shielding my eyes against the midday sun. I squinted to see the vaguely familiar face of the mature, slightly paunchy man guiding the precarious placement of what appeared to be pieces of a giant sailing ship. Sifting my brain for images I’d seen in recent exhibition catalogs the figure with the fuzzy white hair sticking out from under the hardhat came sharply into focus. It was Alexander Calder. I was starstruck. Mesmerized, I argued with myself. ‘Should I grab this opportunity, be bold and approach him, or would he find me an annoying little twerp, distracting him from the serious job at hand?

An uncharacteristic feeling of insecurity rooted me to the spot. In those days, before social media and paparazzi, famous people were much more accessible than they are today. Especially here in Cambridge, where a Nobel Prize winner was just as likely to be sitting next to you as another college student at the Au Bon Pain Café in Harvard Square. Calder was an art world star. He recently introduced kinetics, the relatively new concept that sculpture could move in space. His delicately balanced abstract shapes, “mobiles,” were now a part of the art world lexicon. They danced in the air, floating in the atriums of many museums and public buildings. My art school training did not support my understanding of or feel for the abstract forms that were the building blocks of Calder’s work. Drawing and painting reality was the skill that paved my way to college. My ability in this more conservative arena, the criteria used to evaluate artists for centuries, had been recognized with a scholarship to study at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in rural Maine during the upcoming summer. My forté was capturing on paper or canvas the people I encountered and things that I saw. Not rendering things imagined. When it came to picturing the unknown, my well was dry. I stood on shaky ground. I did not trust myself to move beyond the real world.

Conscious that my understanding of Calder’s vision was minimal and that I lacked the vocabulary to speak his language, I nevertheless marched forward stopping at the edge of the concrete circle about ten feet from where he stood. A pause in the movement of the crane allowed for rivets to be tightened into place by the workers. Calder glanced at me as I moved towards him. Hesitant as a schoolgirl, which is what I was, I took his acknowledgment as an opportunity. I shouted, “Are you Alexander Calder?” I immediately felt stupid and wished the ground would have opened and swallowed me up. He laughed. Looking down at himself and then back at me, he said, “Yes, I guess I am.” Relieved by his friendly, grandfatherly reaction, I don’t remember what I said but I do remember asking him “where are the crowds to this historic event? “Oh,” he casually replied, “a group from Harvard had been here along with a French television crew, but they had had their fill.” Gratefully, they left him to do the real work of installing one of the largest pieces he’d ever made. Not a moving sculpture, it would be fixed in place. He continued, “It’s a stabile. I call it La Grande Voile (The Great Sail)”. Which made total sense given that it had first appeared to be part of a ship, distinctly nautical, but also bird-like, perhaps a kind of dinosaur, a giant pterodactyl, somehow alive.

I was intrigued by the rivets. Big, bold, round rivets held the great curved metal arcs in place. Calder made no attempt to hide how this monument to engineering and human aspiration was made, unlike other abstract works of corporate anointed art like the smoothly elegant often shiny but intellectually and emotionally vapid sculptural objects that had begun to dot the American public art landscape. I asked him about the rivets. Watching intently as one of the workers swayed from a cherry-picker forty feet above us, attempting to align two slabs of steel, Calder replied, “Tightening the rivets is actually the trickiest part. They can’t be too tight or too loose.” He delighted in the mechanics of the whole venture, making transparent how it was made. His good humor left no doubt that he relished being there, on site, and was pleased to satisfy the curiosity of a young female art student.

I could have stayed by his side all afternoon. I know my presence would have been tolerated, even welcomed, but I glanced at my watch and realized I was going to be late for my shift at the Faculty Club. I thanked Mr. Calder and hustled off knowing I had witnessed a pivotal moment, not only for public art on the M.I.T. campus but for art history in America. The magnitude of the event became inextricably bound with my questioning of the place of abstraction in my work as a painter. Art devoid of the human form became a very unsatisfying road that I briefly traveled down then quickly abandoned.

In retrospect, Calder’s exuberance, his joy in the work, his embrace of the labor required in the making of art is what most lingered. Nearly all the artists I have known either before or since have been tortured in some way, owners of complex psyches, filled with self-doubt no matter the accolades, exhibitions, regardless of positive or negative reviews. I fit squarely into that camp. That year, 1966, Calder published An Autobiography with Pictures, a witty illustrated account of the artist’s personal life and prolific career. I hadn’t read it then but sought the book now to help trigger my memory when I decided to write about this incident from the vantage point of the passage of half a century. I found a used hardcover copy on Amazon.

Delightfully anecdotal, the memoir is a verbatim, breezy recounting of Calder’s life as told to his son-in-law Jean Davidson over a four-month period, starting in January 1965 and ending that April. It is illustrated with black and white family photos and full-color, tipped-in glossy images of his artwork. Calder was born into a family of artists in Philadelphia in 1898, the same year as my grandfather. Both his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, and grandfather, were well-known sculptors. His mother was a painter. One of my favorite stories from his childhood shows a photo of the chubby, solidly built “Sandy” as he was nicknamed, around age four, with an image of a sculpture of a nude, standing male child about that same age made by his father. The work was titled Man Cub. The recalcitrant young son in the photo had been the model. That stocky, cherubic, rock-solid child’s image echoed the character of the boyish man he was to become.

Like many boys, Calder was an inveterate tinkerer. He loved exposing the mechanics of things, figuring out how stuff was made. It wasn’t surprising that after high school he attended the Stevens Institute of Technology, receiving his degree in 1919. He was on his way towards becoming an engineer when the call to art could not be resisted. He attended classes at the Art Students League in New York. Early on, he worked as a commercial illustrator, but soon painting and his innovative sculpture were noticed by the tastemakers whose opinions mattered the most.

My trajectory followed a very different path. The meeting with Calder left little impact on the direction of my work as I matured as an artist. I learned everything I knew about shifting from reality to abstraction by studying Cézanne. I spent many hours inspecting every brush stroke in his 1877 portrait Madame Cézanne in a Red Chair that hung permanently in the Impressionist gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As the driving force that took me to art school in the first place bubbled up from my unconscious, sexuality, human brutality and decidedly aggressive imagery took hold. It was Goya and British painter Francis Bacon who loomed large in my iconography of influence. Twisted, contorted, tormented male bodies, painted in an aggressive, Expressionist manner with a limited palette of black, white, and red and all tonal variations possible within those limitations, became my trademark. The energy driving these paintings demanded a large format to hold it. My hand held the brush. The gesture on the canvas was made by my arm and entire body behind it. I needed the space only available in the vacant, abandoned 19th-century warehouses and factory buildings in Boston’s Fort Point, where I also lived, to accommodate the over-sized canvases I constructed. Although huge industrial windows flooded my studio with natural light there was no light in my paintings. The forms came from an interior world. Not invented or fabricated but rooted in physicality, the senses, feelings recalled in that frenzied moment in the act of creation when time disappears, rather than in the cool consciousness of the intellect.

I made headway in the Boston art scene of the late 1970s and 1980s. My paintings were included in the annual survey shows of “emerging” artists at the local Brockton, deCordova, and Danforth Museums. My work was featured on the cover of the third issue of the then newly established publication, Art New England and several large-scale oil paintings were selected for the prestigious Boston Now exhibition held in 1979 at the Institute of Contemporary Art when it was still housed in a converted fire station on Boylston Street.

Calder was surrounded by art and nurtured by artists as a child. My childhood was bereft of cultural influence. My ability to draw was born in a void. It became the lifeline that led me out of a family situation bookended by an alcoholic, philandering father, who I loved, and a deeply unfulfilled, emotionally repressed mother, who I hated. I say this without bitterness because art was such a shining refuge that if my childhood had been easier, I might not have needed the satisfaction and solace art provided at all.

I believe that all art, good, bad or indifferent, is a reflection, a revelation of sorts, of the inherent combination of the artist’s mind, character, and emotional inner core. For those of us confident enough to call ourselves artists, our art is who we are. Once, when my husband at the time was helping me unload a van full of my paintings which were stacked up along 52nd Street waiting to be viewed by a New York dealer because they were too big to carry up the stairs to his second-floor gallery, passersby complimented my husband on ‘his paintings.’ They seemed incredulous when he nodded towards me and said, “she’s the artist.” Smiling to myself, I was secretly proud that my work was seen as masculine. Not that I wanted to be a man. I reveled in being a sexual, feminine woman. Being young and attractive wields power in the world. It was not something I could articulate at the time. It was a fact. The most important men in my life frequently served as both lovers and creative inspiration. I wasn’t the first female artist to paint men. Many of my peers, feminist artists of the 1970s like Valie Export, Cindy Sherman, Karin Mack, and Hannah Wilke used themselves as subjects to talk about “the male gaze.” On the other hand, I embraced the male gaze in my life. I turned the tables and used the female gaze in my work.

Calder appears to be unencumbered by the horrors of the two world wars he lived through. It’s as though art insulated him from pain. Nor was he caught up in psycho/sexual melodrama in his personal life. This Peter Pan-like boyishness, a sophisticated innocence allowed him to continue childhood pursuits, never losing the joy of discovery born out of play. There is balance and clarity combined with an open invitation to curiosity in all of Calder’s work. To walk underneath a Calder stabile and marvel at its shifting grandeur or watch as a delicately balanced mobile drifts in response to the slightest air current, is to experience the wonder and pleasure that motivated the artist who made it.

What is the sustainable driving force for the creation of art? Joy or sorrow, anger or happiness, love or hate, fulfillment or an endless search to be fulfilled? Calder rode on a creative wave of pleasure, making art until he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1976, ten years after I met him.

My childhood from the earliest moment of recollection was fraught with confrontations. Sometimes with my mother, but most often they teetered on the edge of violence with the father that I loved. These confrontations became the fodder for my work. Chewing them up and spitting them out. Never satisfied always looking for something I couldn’t quite see. A place where art and life could live in homeostasis, like the kinetic balance Calder was able to achieve. Equilibrium evaded me. All or nothing seemed to be the only choices for the first 45 years of my life. The “all” was art. Everything else had to be secondary or eliminated and that included marriage, motherhood, friends, a job, a home, a country. I had and then rejected all these things.

It took an intense few years of living in a radical artist’s commune in Europe before the weight of being the artist I so single-mindedly had become was a burden I could no longer bear. In 1993 I returned to Boston having shed my persona as an artist. All the paintings and most of the drawings I had done in Europe were left behind, and the previous lifetime of work that had been placed in storage when I left the United States had been irretrievably lost. There was no time to mourn. In fact, I felt a peculiar sense of relief, as though, like a hermit crab, I’d shed my shell, a home that had become too small or too heavy and inconvenient, and now the only goal for my naked self was survival, finding a new place to settle and creating an identity based on as yet untested skills.

What was left of my “identity” now that I could no longer call myself an artist? I always found some satisfaction in being a woman. Evidence told me, men, many different kinds of men, found me attractive. They’d been trailing around behind me since I was fourteen. I never had to look for or go after one. There was always one around when I needed him. So, intuitively I knew this was a basic strength that I had to play to in order to rebuild my life when all I had was a suitcase with some clothes and no place to live. A well-fitting suit, a pair of high-heels, carefully applied make-up, a college degree, and the ability to speak a foreign language (I picked up conversational German living in that commune) soon got me an apartment. That, in addition to talking points I’d gleaned from a friend in high-tech wrangled me a job running a well-established but faltering documentary film company that needed someone desperate enough to take on the challenge of reviving a company facing bankruptcy. That someone was me.

All of this gave me little time to contemplate where I was headed or where I had been. Building a new life almost from scratch was exhilarating. I’d always loved the first strokes of paint breaking the stark white surface of an empty canvas. Beginnings are wonderful. It is finishing; completing a painting, ending a relationship, a job, a life, that is difficult. Often painful. Or even impossible. So, I leave things dangling. Or, just leave. My past is full of leavings. What are these remnants of a life?

Since “retiring” from that film company job, a position I’d stuck with for close to twenty years, I’ve reinvented myself for perhaps the last time. I now call myself a writer. I plunder the flotsam and jetsam of my past to try and discover who I was and if it bears any resemblance to who I am now. What meaning will any of this have for anyone beyond my grandchildren and those who knew me? Or even for them? Why should they care? I have no idea. Is making art the ticket to immortality or an act of futility?

Somehow even the planners at M.I.T. who commissioned Calder to bring his cultural monument to their campus seemed to feel that the artwork alone would not be sufficient to communicate meaning to future generations. A time capsule, intended to last centuries, constructed of a Pyrex glass tube four feet long, set inside a copper tube, enclosed in an asbestos tube all surrounded by another composition tube 16 inches in diameter and six feet long, would be buried in the ground beneath the sculpture during the dedication ceremony. The list of items deemed worthy for such protection, in retrospect seems inward-looking and mundane. They include an M.I.T. catalog, an M.I.T class ring featuring the school mascot, a beaver, an M.I.T. mug, a Betty Crocker Cookbook, a road atlas, and a Sears & Roebuck catalog among other items. I found a full list of the capsule contents in the M.I.T. archives. What will any future human think about the identity of those who felt this eclectic selection of stuff was so valuable it had to be protected by such extreme measures? Centuries from now, will La Grande Voile still be standing? Or will it have disintegrated into a pile of rust, leaving only the well-protected ephemera in the time capsule buried beneath it?

The value of art and the regard we have for the people who make it is always in flux, determined by the perspective of history. The true meaning of a life, or of a work of art, can only be experienced during living it or in the making of it. Calder embodied this notion. Reflecting on my meeting him helped me to come to this realization too.

List of materials included in the M.I.T. Time Capsule:

  • McGraw-Hill Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology, 1966 edition

  • Betty Crocker Cookbook

  • Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Spring and Summer, 1966

  • Rand McNally Road Atlas

  • Career Booklet, Boeing

  • Annual Report, U.S. Steel Corporation, 1965

  • Annual Report, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1965

  • A brief history of Standard Oil Company

  • The Civilizing Molecules

  • General Motors Research Laboratories Booklet

  • M.I.T Catalogue

  • Presidents Report

  • M.I.T Directory of Current Research

  • INTREX Report

  • Green Building Dedication Booklet

  • The Technology Review, April 1966

  • 20 pictures of the stabile by Robert Haiko

  • 2 pictures of the Green Building

  • The Tech, March 18, 1966

  • The Tech, October 27, 1965

  • M.I.T. Undergraduate Association Constitution and Bylaws

  • Tangent, M.I.T. Literary Magazine Winter-Spring 1966

  • Institute Committee: Rules and Procedures for Undergraduates

  • Tech Engineering News, March 1966

  • Music composed by M.I.T. professors

  • M.I.T. Class of 1967 Beaver ring

  • Plastic Beaver made by Mrs. Walcott Hokanson

  • Lead Plate: engraved alphabet on one side, numerals on the other

  • Copper Plate: engraved alphabet on one side, numerals on the other

  • Chrome-clad tempered steel rule, inches and millimeters

  • 1 pair spectacles

  • 10 pieces of modern fabrics, sealed in glass containers

  • Lucite block with set of 1964 coins provided by New England Merchants Bank of Boston

  • M.I.T. mug

  • Assortment of metals used in machine shop

  • Assortment of electronic components

Armed with an MFA from Boston University, Cynthia Close plowed her way through several productive careers in the arts including as drawing and painting instructor and Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and president of Documentary Educational Resources, a nonprofit film distribution company. She now claims to be a writer.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?