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Alexander Calder in his Connecticut studio, gazing up at his mobiles.

George Hoyningen-Huene/courtesy Calder Foundation/Art Resource

In a 1950 film about Alexander Calder, the artist is shown in his barn-like studio in Connecticut, snipping bits of sheet metal. All around him, a sunny forest of his mobiles – hanging or free-standing structures with many suspended parts – flutter and turn in the breeze blowing through the big open doors.

It’s like a marvellous scene from a children’s tale, especially when the filmmaker sends a small boy in to ask the white-haired man what he’s doing. The answer is written in every textbook about 20th-century art: He’s making sculpture move.

Calder’s creation of the mobile in the early 1930s is often called the kinetic emancipation of an art form that for thousands of years had stood its ground. His iterations of the idea over several decades brought chance, time and the environment to bear on how his sculptures looked at any given moment.

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His prolific career is the focus of a big current show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). This first Canadian retrospective includes mobiles, pieces made from wire and wood, and maquettes for some of the 300 large outdoor sculptures he made or planned during the 15 years before his death in 1976. It also includes several vigorous paintings, although Calder had limited interest in colour, and said that “something to twist, or tear, or bend, is an easier medium for me to think in [than painting]."

Calder's Trois disques at Expo 67.

Calder Foundation/ Artists Rights Society / SOCAN

Montrealers are very familiar with one of his monumental pieces: Trois disques, a 22-metre colossus commissioned for Expo 67, and popularly known as L’Homme. There’s nothing mobile about this muscular steel construction in Île Sainte-Hélène’s Parc Jean-Drapeau, where a major renovation will eventually include a new promenade to the sculpture called Allée Calder.

Calder was one of those rare artists who never displayed inner turmoil about his work or why he made it. He always loved making things with his hands, beginning with the toys and jewellery he constructed as a child from scrap wire and whatever else was available.

His ingenuity with these materials may have pointed him toward engineering, which he studied before running through a variety of jobs quite remote from the artistic pursuits of his parents. A job doing miniature line drawings for the National Police Gazette in New York in the 1920s led him to the circus, which became an obsession.

He made what became an enormous collection of working toy figures of circus performers and animals, which he animated himself at private shows in his lodgings in New York and Paris. A 1961 film of Calder’s circus, with the burly artist recreating his role as ringmaster and puppeteer, gets my vote as the most endearing film ever made about a major artist (you can watch it on YouTube).

“He was a big child,” recalled the playwright Arthur Miller, a friend for 25 years, in Roger Sherman’s film biography from 1998. That view was affectionately seconded by architect I. M. Pei, whose National Gallery East Building in Washington has a large Calder sculpture in its foyer.

As a young man, Calder sometimes showed up at parties with a spool of wire, which he bent and twisted into witty portraits of other guests. His first U.S. solo exhibition in 1928 featured pieces of this kind, which were admired as a form of drawing in space or transparent sculpture.

Calder’s Paris circus shows caught the attention of artists such as Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian. A catalytic visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930 convinced Calder that his future art had to be abstract.

He felt a particular connection with the harmony of planetary movements, which is why his mobiles typically include circles and spheres. Calder aligned his work with nature. Earlier mechanized sculptures (some of which he also made) were more often oriented toward the effects on society of machines and mechanical thinking.

Some of Calder’s outdoor sculptures move, but the arms of most are fixed in place with heavy bolts. Calder’s return to inflexible sculpture after his long dedication to mobility seems puzzling, although the engineer in him no doubt realized a mobile design couldn’t safely work on a monumental scale.

He got into public sculpture at an auspicious time, during the building boom of the 1960s and 70s, when the kind of public/private plaza initiated by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at New York’s Seagram Building was becoming common in North America. The same urban fluorescence also gave many opportunities to Henry Moore, including a site for his Three Way Piece No. 2 (The Archer) at the Toronto City Hall, one year before Trois disques arrived at Expo 67. Unlike Moore’s cast bronzes, Calder’s works in heavy sheet metal could be shipped in pieces for assembly at the site. In that way, they emulated the use of prefabricated elements in modern building construction.

The MMFA show of some 150 works offers a chronological survey of Calder’s progress. Its strident point of view is that he was a radical innovator in every way. Even the simple metal toys he made as a child are held up as signs of precocious genius. I think Calder himself would have shrugged at such talk.

The mobiles are elegantly displayed, in galleries that are as still as crypts. With no breath of air to disturb them, the pieces are static, as if they were made not to show irregular movement, but perfect balance. At set times of the day, a conservator in a white coat prods them gently with a padded stick. I saw this rather earnest intervention, and it wasn’t anything like the joyous agitation shown in the footage of Calder in his studio.

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Many of the pieces in this show are decades old. Maybe they’re too frail and valuable to stand up to the rigours of, say, an intentionally drafty room. In that case, the MMFA should have commissioned replicas to show in a separate gallery, so that Calder’s vision of mobile sculpture could be experienced and not just imagined.

It couldn’t be hard to find experts capable of making such things; lots of amateurs learn to make them all the time from craft workshops and YouTube tutorials. Making “Calder mobiles” has become a popular pastime for adults and children.

Calder’s successors in the art world are mostly installation artists, who are less often inspired by planetary systems than by crowds and individual choice in the age of technological surveillance. He pointed in one direction, and they went in another.

Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through Feb. 24, 2019. It then tours to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, from April 4 through Aug. 5, 2019.

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