Alexander Calder, Collaborative Abstraction, and Public Space

Reed, Emily, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Turner, Elizabeth, Department of Art, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the sources for and significance of the American artist Alexander Calder’s interest in abstract art for public space. I focus upon how and to what ends Calder (1898-1976) collaborated to create abstract art for various public spaces such as modern museums, gardens, public expositions, campuses and plazas, from his first fulfillment of commissions for abstract works in the mid-1930s until the end of his life in 1976. The designs that these collaborations brought about are geographically dispersed, and many have been dismantled, lost or decontextualized by repositioning or changes to their environments; some were unrealized. Scholarship on these designs and efforts has been concentrated in studies of one- to two-decade periods in Calder’s career; his links to specific countries and regions; and in descriptions that consider his principal sculptural forms, such as mobiles and stabiles, in isolation. I reframe Calder’s large-scale, site-specific works in this study by emphasizing their links to collaborative relationships that grew from and affected Calder’s interests in social ideals, modern architecture and urban design.
Each chapter of my dissertation examines an interrelated set of collaborations that fostered key evolutions in the form of Calder’s site-specific and public work and in the procedures and materials that underlay it. Chapter One describes how Calder’s first commissions for abstract work reflected and fostered his patrons’ interests in the social dimensions of modern architecture in mid-1930s America. Chapter Two examines how Calder’s relationships with and effect upon the Museum of Modern Art’s curators and trustees related to his interests in expanding the scale and architectural and social potential of his sculpture from the late 1930s to the end of World War II. My third chapter examines how the logistical complexities inherent to Calder’s 1940s and 1950s commissions by an international group of architects and organizers of public events affected his approach to public commissions. In my fourth chapter, I analyze key differences between Calder’s late-career commissions for a range of urban and social contexts and their implications for his approach to his own final commissions during the ascendance of postmodernist site-specific and public work.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
sculpture, abstract art, public art, museum history
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