Out of volumes, motion, spaces bounded by the great space, the universe.
Out of different masses, light, heavy, middling- indicated by variations of size of color - directional line - vectors which represent speeds, velocities, accelerations, forces, etc...these directions making between them meaningful angles, and senses, together defining one big conclusion or many.
Spaces, volumes, suggested by the smallest means in contrast to their mass, or even including them, juxtaposed, pierced by vectors, crossed by speeds.
Nothing at all of this is fixed.”
- Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder’s Untitled mobile from 1963 is an excellent example of the artist’s use of simple industrial materials to achieve otherworldly results. Here, fragments of black and red-painted metal serve as weight and counter-weight, balancing off a series of chain-linked wires suspended from the ceiling. The shapes themselves are abstract, though they reference both organic and man-made shapes, including leaves, blades of paddles, fins, tails, and sails. Despite its abstract nature, Calder’s mobile is decidedly animate, responding to the movement of air with subtle movements that do not disrupt its miraculous equilibrium.
Calder is well-known as the inventor of the mobile, though it was Dada artist Marcel Duchamp who coined the term for Calder’s moving creations. The story of Calder’s development as an artist is quite charmed. Raised as the son of a painter and a sculptor, Calder was always encouraged to create, and even as a child was given workshop space and tools. After studying mechanical engineering in college, Calder went on to study fine art and painting with the Art Students League of New York, taking night classes while working in a variety of industries, including engineering, but also illustration, logging, toy design, and other odd jobs. Calder worked across form and media, creating paintings, jewelry, drawings, simple wire sculptures, wood carvings, monumental outdoor works, and more throughout his lifetime. Living amongst the avant-garde in Paris and New York in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Calder was influenced by emerging forms of abstraction just as he was influential in the development and use of motion. Throughout these decades, Calder created and performed Cirque Calder, a portable, miniature circus made up of Calder’s handcrafted kinetic toys and set pieces. It was through this uncanny circus that many influential artists of the time came to know Calder and his work. His unbelievable moving toys included a lion and his tamer, an aerialist who soars above a canopied net, and a ringleader, among many others. Manipulated by strings, air, and Calder’s deft hands, these tiny circus characters charmed many.
His mobiles would become Calder’s signature creation, yet these simplified forms draw much from the circus animals, toys, and figurative wire sculptures that came before. Calder’s first mobiles were exhibited in 1931. Calder would continue to work with the mobile form throughout the remainder of his life, up until his death in 1976. Calder made both suspended mobiles, like Untitled from 1963, that hang from a single point on a wall or ceiling, as well as standing mobiles that are supported by the ground. While his background with mathematics and engineering provided the know-how necessary to form these exquisitely balanced creations, it was his singular vision that transformed simple sheets of metal, bits of glass, and wires into these enchanting, fluid forms.
The playful quality of Calder’s mobiles may call to mind the works of Joan Miró and Paul Klee. In fact, both of these artists were influential on Calder’s aesthetic. Though Calder’s deployment of negative space and pared down shapes progressed further into abstraction, the quality of his line - the perfectly balanced arc, the well-measured mass - is reminiscent of one of Klee’s virtuosic drawings, such as Under Water. Both artists seem to toy with gravity. While Klee does so by evacuating it altogether from his images, allowing his figures seem to bend, float, and extend in uncanny ways, Calder achieves this weightlessness through sheer mastery. Even when seen as static images, Calder’s mobiles communicate a sense of movement, of kinetic possibility. In this way, they also recall the diving swallows and plunging carp of Utagawa Hiroshige’s nineteenth century Japanese prints - animation perfectly captured in still form.
Though fabricated over half a century ago, Calder’s Untitled maintains a contemporary and relevant quality. Calder’s kinetic constructions became known throughout the world, as their ability to inspire wonder, imagination, and fascination never fades. Today, Calder’s mobiles are held in the collections of many of the world’s most important museums, and they continue to speak to audiences. As one art historian has noted, “Few works of art offer unique and enduring experiences, except to the initiated viewer who knows where and how to look. Sometimes, appreciation relies primarily on historical knowledge—not so, with a Calder.” Spoken through these few simple, dangling geometries, Calder’s vision of the world is enduringly fresh, endlessly transformative, constantly alluring.
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