Arts and Entertainment

Songs of Motion: Calder’s Mobiles

Review of “Calder: Hypermobility,” a new temporary exhibit at the Whitney.

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Alexander Calder’s mother painted portraits for a living, and his father was the third sculptor in his family. The two met at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and started a family in California. As a child, Calder would fashion metal toys for his sister and make sculptures for his parents. In high school, he built a train set with his father’s friend, painter Everett Shinn. Despite his pedigree and obvious interest in sculpting, his parents discouraged him from living the life of a starving artist. Out of obligation, Calder studied engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, though he held no interest in it. A few years after receiving his degree, Calder took a job in Washington. Inspired by the mountainous scenery, he decided to move to New York to become an artist.

“Calder: Hypermobility” is a new, temporary exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art that features a small number of his works. They represent the key components of his art in terms of types of sculptures and aesthetics. There are mobiles (kinetic sculptures), stabiles (sedentary sculptures), and wire sculptures. His pieces are simplistic, composed of different abstract shapes joined together, usually by wires. Some of his pieces hang from the ceiling, some are bolted into the ground, and some are attached to the wall. His works are characteristic of the Parisian avant-garde style: abstract and unconventional.

On a Sunday morning, I found myself on the eighth floor of the Whitney. The room was small, with navy blue walls that offset the artwork and a glass ceiling that let in mottled sunlight. The exhibit was filled with tourists and New Yorkers alike. Conversations filled the air—some in French, some in Russian, some in southern drawls, and others sounding distinctly New York.

At the far right of the room hung a series of mobiles. One hung from the ceiling by a thread of wire. Attached to it was a series of ascending and descending uniform, white circles of various sizes, all held together by nearly invisible aluminum wires. It gently rocked clockwise and then counterclockwise, repeating this motion over and over again.

An employee walked to the front of the room holding a long white stick. She held the stick up to the mobile, pushed it, and the room fell silent. The mobile spun rapidly in one direction for a few seconds, stopped, and reversed its course of movement. It did so for a while, with its movements getting smaller and slower before it regained its balance, falling to a stillness. Upon being disturbed, each piece was thrust vigorously into motion before falling back into a delicate state of balance.

Calder’s mobiles are the sirens of the art world. They capture the viewer’s attention with the beauty of their movement, making it nearly impossible to look away.

Calder’s art is a feat of engineering—his works rely on gravity and balance of individual components to make up a whole. Gravity drags down his mobiles, but is essential to their composition. On the flip side, his works appear to be antigravitational: the largest pieces are at the top and the smallest pieces hang out on the sides and at the bottom. There seems to be no way that the mobiles could stay still, but they do. Their balance relies on two opposing forces. Calder’s knowledge of engineering and physics plays a vital role in his art by allowing him to create such delicate yet stable pieces.

I hold a special appreciation for the engineering aspect of Calder’s work. Though his works look relatively simple, the science behind them is extremely complex. I found the exhibit to be euphoric and almost dreamlike. By taking in the motion of the mobiles, I was able to lose myself in the art and clear my mind. Other visitors were equally mesmerized—nobody in the room moved. They stood still and looked up at them, either discussing it with their friends or gazing in silence. I was simply one of many people among the mobiles, staring at them wordlessly and in wonder. IMG_2124.JPG