Sandy at Play

There was the face painted on the underside of the toilet. And the giant kitchen utensils made with wire and pliers. And the miniature toy circus performed with popcorn, sawdust, and a gramophone.

And then there was Alexander Calder (“Sandy” to his friends), the big, tall man invariably in a red wool shirt and baggy blue jeans who made all that.

He was an engineer by training, but an artist by choice. “I think best in wire,” he said, and he often walked around with pliers in his back pocket.

Mr. Calder delighted in junk heaps, old spring beds, the way things hooked together. His Roxbury, Connecticut studio next to a cow pasture was filled with unruly mounds of wire and metal.

And there, among the mounds, was where you could find him at work. Though playwright and neighbor Arthur Miller would say Mr. Calder “seemed more like someone at play.”

Once, before the studio in Roxbury, Mr. Calder had lived in a tiny Paris apartment. There, he made and performed a miniature wire-toy circus. Cirque Calder, he called it, and, as the ringmaster, he crawled around blowing whistles, cranking the gramophone, and doing lion roars, while the audience, often dressed to the nines, ate popcorn and peanuts.

On a visit to Piet Mondrian’s Montparnasse studio where the walls were covered with rectangles of color, Mr. Calder wanted to know what would happen if the rectangles moved. Mr. Mondrian wasn’t interested. Mr. Calder was. “Why must art be static?” he once wondered.

And so he adventured off into sculpture. Not the regular, familiar sculpture that was unchanging, immobile, and a bit somber. But changing, mobile, wiry sculpture. “A piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life,” he later said of his mobiles, “and surprises.”

Works of art – or, as the case may be, plays of art – were found, Mr. Calder believed, in “accidents to regularity.”

So he played in his unruly studio by the cow pasture. Making utensils and mobiles and accidents out of the materials he thought best in. And he did it all with what he thought was essential to art, and, perhaps, life itself:

“An adventurous spirit in attacking the unfamiliar and the unknown.”

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