1898, Lawnton, Pennsylvania
1976, New York, New York
Alexander Calder is best known for his hanging mobiles. Born into a family of artists, Calder committed to a career in art in his mid-20s and traveled frequently in the subsequent years between New York and Paris, where he befriended members of the international avant-garde.
Calder’s interest in movement appeared early in his figurative wire sculptures, which have a mechanical sensibility. In 1931 Calder gave form to an entirely new type of abstract art: the mobile. Some of these objects operated with motors, but his real breakthrough came with his creation of hanging mobiles. They consist of abstract shapes connected by wires and move freely with the air currents in a room.
In addition to his mobiles and stabiles, or stationary objects, Calder worked across many media, including painting, jewelry, drawing, printmaking, textiles, and domestic objects, and he undertook commissions for large-scale public artworks around the world.
How Calder invented mobiles
In 1932, Alexander Calder wrote, “Why must art be static? You look at an abstraction, sculptured or painted, an entirely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect but it is always still. The next step in sculpture is motion.
It is hard to imagine that the mobile actually was invented, the idea of the mobile is now so ubiquitous.
Curator Gary Garrels.
We see mobiles in many forms everywhere, but this was actually invented by Alexander Calder in Paris in the thirties. He was influenced by the Surrealists and their interest in chance; that we do not have total rational control of our thinking or of our experience in life. Calder was interested in how sculpture might give a voice to that. And by making the mobile, there are a set vocabulary of forms and possibilities of certain combinations and shapes, the way the piece relates to space. But on the other hand, it’s indeterminate; that the elements can move freely from the influence of air currents.
There was no name for such a thing—a sculpture set loose in space—free to move with each passing breeze. So Calder asked his friend, artist Marcel Duchamp, what he should call them. Duchamp’s answer? “Mobile,” the French word for “movable” as well as “motive.” Duchamp and Calder loved puns and double-entendres. “Motive” suggested that a sculpture might have a mind of its own.
Please note that artwork locations are subject to change, and not all works are on view at all times. If you are planning a visit to SFMOMA to see a specific work of art, we suggest you contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm it will be on view.
Only a portion of SFMOMA's collection is currently online, and the information presented here is subject to revision. Please contact us at email@example.com to verify collection holdings and artwork information. If you are interested in receiving a high resolution image of an artwork for educational, scholarly, or publication purposes, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.