As my mom and I walked to the Whitney, she said, “Look, they have Calder,” and I thought, ‘I know he’s the mobile guy, pioneer of Modernism, etc., but I hope she doesn’t take too long.’ I wanted to spend our time on an exhibit called “Where We Are,” a title taken from W. H. Auden’s poem September 1, 1939, all nine menacing stanzas written on the museum wall. How could mobiles compete with art under the outbreak of WWII?
I had never seen a Calder, except in photographs. Hypocritically, I believed Modernist paintings could only be judged in person, when the eye fully perceives the optical effects of paint, but I did not extend this rule to sculpture. The Whitney had enlisted a museum attendant who, at certain hours, gently nudged Calder’s mobiles with a padded stick. People crammed the gallery to watch. His mobiles looked impossibly thin in person, so delicate I worried for them as the attendant approached with his stick – they had already converted me. These sculptures are to crib mobiles what a hummingbird is to a dodo. But to fully appreciate Calder, it’s not enough to see his works in person – you must see them move, as he intended.
Most of us assume our nursery knockoffs inspired Calder, but he’s responsible for their very existence. The word mobile originated from Duchamp in descriptions of Calder’s work, although Man Ray had created a sculpture of suspended hangers with the same whippletree technology a decade earlier. Usually, ideas develop, and their first or second creators might not necessarily have done them best, but Calder became synonymous with mobiles by the end of the 1940s and still monopolizes the word. He’d likely have done it in less time if sheet metal hadn’t been scarce during the war.
Calder’s best armatures don’t simply sway, or rotate en masse, but move in several directions as if completely independent of each other. Several years before I visited the Whitney, I read an article in Time Magazine on civilian and military drones. Its author compared the “humble” Roomba to a drone, and argued robotics would inevitably lead to the air, where machines move freely. Some have blamed Calder’s mobiles for steering art away from engineering; his sculptures depended
on motors before he hung and set them at the mercy of air currents and human intervention. But the future vindicated what Calder saw back in 1930. Suspension allows his metal to sway, dip, and rotate with unprecedented subtlety. The Whitney crowds circled more tightly around the mobiles than the grounded stabiles, “(Blizzard) Roxbury Flurry” their clear favorite. The Whitney had painted the wall behind it dark blue, which made its white sheet metal circles –– I counted at least thirty –– look more like the heavens than a blizzard. As the attendant approached, the crowds condensed. The sculpture rotates when pushed, but its circles simultaneously sway up and down, and side to side, as if in an eddy of wind. “Roxbury Flurry” in motion ranks among the most wondrous things I’ve experienced.
Every museum catalog on Calder is practically obligated to mention Einstein, who preferred “The Universe” and stood watching it for forty minutes. “The Universe” is earlier than “Roxbury,” a transition between stabile and mobile, mounted on the ground, motor-propelled planets suspended on wires. Calder completed it in 1934. By then, Einstein was
a refugee. He likely sensed a kindred spirit in Calder, who had trained as a mechanical engineer. And every catalog includes Einstein’s famous quote: “I wish I had thought of that.” I wonder if Einstein became, later in life, jealous of more than the sculptures. Calder’s inventions will never vaporize cities and poison the very cells of the survivors. This is not simply a virtue of ‘art.’ Like science, it is misused. The Kims of North Korea built ‘Towers of Eternal Life’ and inscribed them with their names, Stalin’s image multiplied in statues across the world, and Hitler dreamed of his Volkshalle, a domed building to rival the Pantheon, but unlike films, posters, and statues, mobiles do not naturally lend themselves to propaganda. What dictator would want us to send fifteen of their portraits swinging, bouncing, and fluttering on wires? As for engineering, mobiles predicted the aerodynamic freedom of drones, but nobody looked at these sly, whimsical creations and thought flying robots. We thought babies would love these.
Calder has been dead since 1976, but his inventions cast no shadows. Rest in peace, Alexander, the mobile is still yours.
Written by Elle Friedle.