In a childhood self-portrait, Alexander “Sandy” Calder is kneeling and sawing a block of wood, with other carpentry tools strewn about. Years later, the man, stout and bearded, would continue to clamber about on his hands and knees while performing his miniature circus in Paris and New York.

Through levers, strings, and springs, the circus’s simple motions brought to life a myriad of acts: trapeze artists swinging from rig to rig; Fanny the Belly Dancer, with a sparse costume and generous hips; an elephant who produced droppings that Calder covered with sand and swept up in a mini dustpan. The delightful acts also showed the darker side of the spectacle: a chariot driver jerkily lashed a team of horses, and the ringmaster’s inflated self-importance was reflected in his oversized hands and megaphone.

The circus was viewed as intellectual entertainment for adults in the early 1900s, and Calder played to art galleries on both sides of the pond and in Upper East Side parlours. The Calder Circus, a labour of love that originally included around 200 hand-crafted pieces, is an early example of both performance art and the use of found objects. The circus is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, along with sketches, paintings, and sculptures from his seven-year stay in Paris.

Calder is best known for creating the mobile. The term was coined by Marcel Duchamp, who later declared Calder’s work “pure joie de vivre” and “the sublimation of a tree in the wind.” (Not to be outdone, Jean Arp coined the term “stabile” for Calder’s stationary sculptures.) Calder was born in 1898 in Lawson, now part of Philadelphia, to a family of artists. His mother was an accomplished painter; his father and grandfather were sculptors.

As a child, Calder made toys and games for himself, and at age eight, his parents gave him the basement as a workshop. But it wasn’t until he was 25 that he considered art as a career. After finishing a degree in mechanical engineering, Calder bounced around and worked odd jobs until he decided to start painting landscapes while working at a logging camp. (He wrote to his mother around this time to ask for oil paints).

After taking drawing and painting classes in New York, Calder decided to go to Paris, then the acknowledged art capital of the world. He got passage on a freighter by working as a deck hand, received $75 per month from his mother, and supported himself through commercial toy-making and freelance illustration work.

By the time he landed in Paris in 1926, the 28-year-old was already familiar with the mechanics of the circus. The previous year, he had sketched the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey Circus for the National Police Gazette, and had produced over 250 sketches of animals at the Bronx and Central Park zoos.

As the circus critic Legrand-Chabrier put it, Calder’s miniature circuses were “not obliged to succeed.” (Legrand-Chabrier suggested safety nets for the trapeze figures, and Calder obliged.) The snafus are lampooned by the novelist Tom Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again, which fictionalizes Calder as “Piggy Logan,” whose repeated attempts to execute trapeze tricks bores the fashionable crowd. Jean Painlevé’s 1955 film, Le Grand Cirque Calder 1927, doesn’t edit out unsuccessful attempts. It takes several tries to get a rubber dog to jump through a little hoop, and a model of a horse refuses to be lassoed, but Calder is still greeted with laughter and applause.

The circus’s energy and motion are evident in other works on exhibit. Eschewing traditional sculpting materials like wood, clay, and bronze, Calder made wire portraits of friends and celebrities. “I think best in wire,” he once said. While the three-dimensional portraits themselves seem to change expression when viewed from different angles, they cast shadows on the wall that retain a certain look, be it earnest and Santa-like (Calvin Coolidge) or a knowing grin (Jimmy Durante, the honky-tonk pianist).

Calder was taken with singer and dancer Josephine Baker, and made at least five figures of her. (Overheard at the AGO, as a museum tour guide and his lone guest watched a video of Baker dancing wearing only feathers: “Josephine Baker is doing the Charleston without a bra. This was not done in the United States.”)

Calder used simple materials to build his little circus—wire, cloth, metal, string, paper, and corks—and had a penchant for reusing and recycling materials from daily life. His first metal sculpture was a rooster sundial produced when he was living in a tiny New York apartment that faced south; after he married Louisa James, the newlyweds lived on a shoestring budget and Calder made many household items himself, including a bacon fork and five versions of a toaster. His daughters had a wealth of homemade toys, the highlight probably being the six-storey dollhouse made from packing crates and complete with electrical lights.

It was in Paris that Calder matured as an artist, befriending the likes of Duchamp, Arp, Joan Miro, and Piet Mondrian. After a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930, Calder wrote to his parents that at age 32, he would begin to work in the abstract and combine movement with abstraction. By the time he moved back to the U.S. in 1933, he was an internationally acclaimed figure, making art out of play and building on the body of work he created during the Paris years.

Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933 runs until Jan. 10 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Admission for students is $10; the AGO is free on Wednesdays from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

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