Calder in Motion

The artist‘s modern mobiles and sculptures will be set in motion for the first time in his career, thanks in part to the Calder Foundation.

Photo courtesy of Calder Foundation, New York. © ARS, NY

You’ve probably seen Alexander Calder’s modern mobiles before, but you haven’t seen them quite like this. “Calder: Hypermobility” at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the first exhibition to present the American artist’s work exactly the way he wanted—kinetically.

“My grandfather intended for these works of art to be in motion, with all of the unpredictable elements that come along with it, like sound and variation,” says Alexander S. C. Rower, the artist’s grandson and president of the Calder Foundation.

Photo by Herbert Matter

Take, for example, Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry) (1946), a metal mobile with four collections of branches. Numerous white circles, ranging from less than an inch to four or five inches in diameter, are attached at the ends of metal wires. It’s beautiful on its own and evokes gently falling snow, even when it’s just moving slightly as air shifts. But when a museum docent comes by with a special stick (protected at the end, so as not to damage the sculpture) and gives it a little push, the piece comes to life! Suddenly, the four sections are bobbing up and down, with their branches moving in different directions. Now it’s like snow blowing and swirling in the wind.

Activations of the kinetic sculptures will occur at designated times each day, so you can see precisely how dynamic they are and how inspired Calder was by the act of performance; theater and dance fascinated him. To make his structures move, he even installed motors, and eight of his motorized works from the 1930s are included in this show, thanks to a team of conservators who worked to make sure they could be run without damage. In one of these sculptures, small spheres on wires move around in a circle on the front of a wooden box. Rower calls these pieces “paintings in motion.”

Photo by Jerry L. Thompson

There’s a great variety of work, too—wall panels with suspended moving elements; a sound-generation gong sculpture hanging overhead; static sculptures, or “stabiles.” There’s even a folksy hanging-wire fish sculpture: Curved wires, strung with broken pieces of glass, suggest gills and the raised bottom of a glass bottle forms the fish’s eye.

Performance art and other “experiences” are all the rage today, but Calder was doing such things almost a century ago, Rower observes. In the 1920s, Calder’s Cirque Calder immersed audiences in a live, 360-degree performance with music, action, and adrenaline. To honor the artist’s legacy, this exhibition will also feature performances, screenings, and onetime demonstrations of Calder’s rarely seen works.

Why You Should Go: Finally, you can see Calder’s sculptures come alive—just as he originally intended. His mobiles are ubiquitous in art museums, but here you’ll experience the artist’s work with fresh eyes.

Photo by Jerry L. Thompson

“Calder: Hypermobility”
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street (at Washington Street), West Village
Through Monday, October 23
$22 ($25 on-site); students and seniors, $17 ($18 on-site); ages 18 and under, free

Go on an impromptu gallery hop and eat Parisian sweets on the West Side.