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.
Did you hear that? A personal take on Double Gong
Here’s Sandy Rower, the artist’s grandson.
I think one of the most profound experiences you can have with Calder’s mobiles is precisely that you’ll be observing it and you’ll look away, and you’ll look back and it will have moved, but it will be static — meaning that in your first observation it wasn’t really moving, and in your second observation it’s not really moving; but it moved in between the times that you glanced at it.
See those two brass pieces at the outer end of the mobile? If an air current happens to move them close enough together —
SFX: Ping (sound of the brass pieces touching)
They’re not supposed to ding all the time, like an instrument. They’re supposed to ding super-infrequently. But when they do, you turn around: “Where did that sound come from?” And you discover the mobile made a sound. It’s using another tool to bring us into the present moment. It’s sort of a mysterious thing, and that can be very profound.
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