Calder Foundationby Alexander S. C. Rower
When Americans woke up to art in the 1960s, Calder was largely seen as a contemporary of Warhol and Lichtenstein. Very few people realized that he was born in 1898, or that he emerged in 1920s Paris, where he redefined art history through performance, action, and chance. Calder was an essential figure in the international avant-garde, an intellectual luminary who stood alongside Duchamp, Mondrian, and Picasso as one of the greats. His place in this narrative has been a focus of the Calder Foundation for the past thirty years. It’s important that his work be understood and engaged within this context—and more importantly, with close attention paid to his original intent.
Although the Calder Foundation began in 1987, when I was twenty-four, its story began in the summer of 1977, some eight months after my grandfather’s death. Thousands of papers from his house in Saché, France, were headed to the rubbish bin. I salvaged them in fourteen cardboard boxes and sent them back home to New York City. For the next ten years, they remained in a fourth-floor closet in my mother’s brownstone on MacDougal Street. From those boxes, and thousands more stray papers, grew an unparalleled archive of over 130,000 documents (correspondence, travel documents, inventory records, bank statements, exhibition materials, et cetera).
Central to our mission is not only preparing the archive for research but also lending our vast collection of art to institutions across the globe. Unsurpassed in both scope and depth, the Foundation's collection includes mobiles, stabiles, standing mobiles, wire sculptures, and monumental outdoor works, as well as oil paintings, works on paper, toys, pieces of jewelry, and domestic objects. In the past five years alone, we have collaborated on nearly two-dozen major museum shows—reinvigorating Calder’s presence in such wide-ranging locales as Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Mexico City, Moscow, and Seoul—in addition to long-term collaborations with the National Gallery of Art, Storm King Art Center, and Fondation Beyeler, to name a few.
While issues like color, form, and motion have an obvious place in the discussion of Calder, it’s the fundamental aspects of his practice—reflective energies, aural vibrations, traveling shadows, captured voids, real-time performance—that contribute to a riveting multigenerational dialogue. Calder’s innovations were truly prophetic. His Cirque Calder (1926 – 31), for example, predated performance art by some four decades, while his first suspended mobile, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/33), was a forerunner not only of viewer intervention but also of avant-garde music in a broader sense, with the spectator stepping into roles of composer and conductor. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1946, “Calder suggests nothing. He captures true, living movements and crafts them into something . . . [His mobiles] feed on the air, breathe it and take their life from the indistinct life of the atmosphere.” Before everything else, it’s the aliveness of my grandfather’s mobiles that brings these works created several generations ago so seamlessly into the present.
Over the last decade, the Foundation has moved into an exciting new phase as we explore Calder’s relationship to 21st century artists in a variety of ways. In 2005, in collaboration with the Scone Foundation, we created the Calder Prize as a way to recognize forward-thinking artists whose work reflects the continued relevance of my grandfather’s legacy; the diverse Calder Prize laureates are Jill Magid (2017), Haroon Mirza (2015), Darren Bader (2013), Rachel Harrison (2011), Tomás Saraceno (2009), ilvinas Kempinas (2007), and Tara Donovan (2005). In 2011, we acquired the penthouse above our Chelsea office, which now doubles as a project space where we host lectures, cross-disciplinary symposiums, film screenings, and performances, as well as the occasional sound bath meditation. In the last few years, as part of a project developed by curator Victoria Brooks, we commissioned filmmakers Agnès Varda, Ephraim Asili, Rosa Barba, and Lucy Raven to engage with Calder’s experiential and phenomenological practice. Last but not least is our longstanding Atelier Calder residency program, established in 1989 with the Centre National des Arts Plastiques in France, where international artists are invited to live and work in Calder’s Saché property for three-month periods. This year’s residents are Elise Eeraerts, Valerie Snobeck, and Santiago Borja.
Following Calder’s example of living and working ecologically, the Foundation has reactivated the landscape in Roxbury, Connecticut, to bring back the same energy it had in the 1950s when the Calders were thriving there. We’ve acquired over 150 acres of property, beyond the original eighteen that Calder and Louisa purchased in 1933, in order to preserve the land, activate the soil, and protect the natural beauty of this corner of Western Connecticut.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Les Mobiles de Calder,” Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Louis Carré, 1946), 9–19. Translation by Chris Turner, The Aftermath of War: Jean-Paul Sartre (Calcutta: Seagull, 2008).
ContributorAlexander S. C. Rower
ALEXANDER S. C. ROWER is founder and president of the Calder Foundation and grandson of the artist.