We think of drawing, naturally enough, as lines or shapes on paper. Similarly, we think of sculpture as forms in space, particularly solid forms. Rarely do we think of drawing as three dimensional or sculpture as lines.
When I was younger I was fascinated with drawing telephone wires and the transformers on the poles that they intersected with because they seemed to be lines drawn in the air, lines in three dimensions, which I just thought was unbelievably cool. Then I discovered Alexander Calder.
Calder drew with lines in space. His remarkable constructions of twisted wire, metal and wood redefined sculpture and are wonderful excursions into drawing with lines in three dimensional space. His wonderful objects loop, swirl, and bounce their way through the air with the freedom of a Miro drawing and carve up space into amazingly playful forms like Henry Moore at his best.
Most of us have followed in Calder’s footsteps as children when we construct mobiles in art classes. Calder essentially invented the concept of a “mobile”, a sculputural construction in which shapes, often of metal, are suspended in a balanced arrangement from wires, most often in a way that allows for motion. These kinetic sculptures are usually suspended from the ceiling of a room or other space.
Calder’s familiar hanging mobiles actually evolved from earlier versions, kinetic sculptures of similar construction that were meant to sit on a flat surface and whose shapes incorporated elements that acted as a base or footing. He later went on to investigate more traditional sculptures that exhibited the same feeling, but in the swooping intersections of static forms; which Jean Arp named “stabiles”.
One of the delights of my frequent visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is glancing up at the crazy cool Calder mobile called Ghost that hangs in all of its kinetic glory in the Great Stair Hall of the museum. Calder was born here in Philadelphia and the city has several fine examples of his work, including a large mobile and stabile on and near the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Calder sculpture in Philadelphia is a family tradition. If you ask people about a family of artists from the Delaware Valley with three generations of working artists, they will inevitably think of the Wyeths, most are unaware of the Calders.
Calder’s father, Stirling Calder was also a Philadelphia sculptor, and his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, created the giant sculpture of William Penn on the top of City Hall Tower that is one of the prime symbols of the city. A.M. Calder also created more than 250 other sculptures for the building (which some not-too-bright politicians wanted tear down and replace with a “modern” office building some years ago, but were fortunately voted down).
Unfortunately, plans to honor the grandson and inventor of the mobile, Alexander “Sandy” Calder, with a museum here have been abandoned.
The Calder Foundation administers much of his work and looks after his legacy. The site has some good resources even if the arrangement isn’t the best.
You can’t experience Calder from photographs, though. You have to inhabit the same room with one of his delightful kinetic marvels to really get a feeling for how they liven up the three dimensional space in which they exist. The Artcyclopedia page for Calder lists museums that have his work on display, try to see some in person.
Then, you may be tempted to take up your own bits of wire and metal and “mobilize” your creativity to capture some of that playful balance that was Alexander Calder’s genius.