The genesis of Calder’s abstract pieces

Calder mobile sculpture weight counterweight construction Whitney museum

As I mentioned yesterday, I was struck by a couple things at the Whitney. Beyond the Hopper exhibit that is getting a lot of press, I spent a lot of time exploring the hidden floor of the Whitney: floor 5M. Floor 5M is a mezzanine level between the 4th and 5th floor and is only accessible through a staircase or elevator at the back of the 5th floor. If you are persistent enough, though, it is well worth a visit as it houses several Calder pieces.

Again, I got interested in his creative process and in the genesis of the pieces as much as in the final result itself. As it turns out, a fascinating story unfolded as I went through the pieces and the accompanying explanations. Calder first started making circus characters and he played with them to create animated shows for his friends and families. Those little figures look unassuming but a couple very interesting things came out for me: one, they are all made of recycled, cheap materials such as corks, fabric, etc… two, they really come to life as Calder uses weights and counter-weights to make them move.

But then, of course, there are the abstract mobile steal-based pieces that Calder is famous for. So how did he go from one to the other? Well, it turns out he visited Mondrian’s studio (they were both in Paris at the time) and, boom, got thunder struck and started working on abstract pieces. Another example of the mystery involved in the genesis of art. On the one hand, a major discontinuity, something totally unexpected came out of him. But on the other hand he really built on what he had learnt making the circus pieces. He had been focusing on how to create moving pieces, how to use weights and counter-weights to balance them, and how to create with minimal materials and construction. And you see all of that at work in the stunning pieces shown at the Whitney. In one of them, aluminium leaves are tied to a steal structure by mere wire, inserted in the leaves like a needle in fabric.

Calder mobile sculpture Aluminium leaves steel construction Whitney museum

Interesting way the wire is weaved into the aluminium leaves to hold them like a needled in fabric

Calder mobile sculpture steel aluminium leaves construction Whitney museum

The full piece. incredible sense of movement. The red part is immobile and the rest moves with air movement

The other large piece in there is showing Calder’s genius in understanding balance. It is a large structured, held in place only in one point about 1 square inch large. The picture opens this post.

Finally the “woman’s hat” piece is a delightful smaller piece of delicate construction, where the top parts (the red part at the top and the blue and black middle parts) actually move with air.

Woman's hat Calder mobile sculpture steel construction Whitney museum

A very delicate piece

And one last observation before we part: these pieces meant to move with the wind are enclosed in the gallery like wild animals in a zoo. They only came to life when the guards announced the museum was closing in 10mn and visitors started moving in and out of the room in sync, creating air movement. So maybe we should all go there with little fans and free up those art pieces 🙂


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