Featured Artist: Alexander Calder

Perhaps the most celebrated American sculptor of the 20th century, Alexander Calder is especially well-known for his abstract and seemingly innocuous mobiles. These would become a common feature in official American exhibitions at world fairs and international art festivals during the 1950s – including at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. In this context they were presented as examples of ‘free’ art produced within a democratic society and devoid of political meaning. Yet the use of Calder’s work as state propaganda would increasingly run into conflict with the artist’s own politics.

As the recent article ‘Unstable Motives: Propaganda, Politics, and the Late Work of Alexander Calder‘ explores in detail, in the 1960s and ’70s Calder become increasingly activist and critical of US foreign policy, with his new-found radicalism reflected in his artwork.

In later life Calder began to produce prints, posters and even badges in support of presidential candidates, anti-war protests and refugee relief operations. Calder was also one of a group of artists who publicly refused to take part in the White House Arts Festival of 1965, in a show of opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet against the artist’s wishes his work Whale II was placed centre stage at the event, having been lent by MoMA. This story perfectly sums up the often difficult relationship between American artists and the US government as the changing politics of the Cold War challenged their ability to work together.

Images: Top – Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon B. Johnson examine Calder’s Whale II at the White House Festival of the Arts, 1965. Photo: Yoichi Okamoto; Bottom – Alexander Calder, Mankind Must Put an End to War or War Will Put an End to Mankind, 1975. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Art © 2012 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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