Calder's Biomorphic Machines

Alexander Calder: untitled mobile, 1976, permanently installed at the National Gallery of Art

formative influences:

John Sloan: Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, 1912 cartoon by John Sloan
Calder: The Circus, 1926, oil on burlap, 69x83" Calder: zoo drawings, pen and ink, 1925-6

In Europe in the late 1920s, he meets Jean Arp, Joan Miro, Mondrian and other members of the European avant-garde---artists who are experimenting with surrealist ideas about biomorphism and automatism and artists who eventually unite to form the group called "Abstract-Creation" (named for a magazine they published).  Calder's work at this time reflects a variety of influences including the work of these European artists, his own early and continuing interest in toys and the circus, and his background in kinetics and engineering.

Miro: The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers, 1941 Miro: Dutch Interior 1, 1928
Jean Arp: Fleur Marteau, 1916 (oil on wood) Calder: Josephine Baker, 1927-9, 32" ht., wire
Calder: Fish pull-toy, ca 1960 (approx. 10" ht.) Calder: Umbrella Lamp, 1928 (wire, light bulb, toy umbrella, 24" ht.)

Calder wrote a statement for the first issue of Abstraction-Creation, a statement which speaks clearly of his background in mechanical engineering: "How does art come into being? Out of volumes, motion, spaces carved out within the surrounding space, he universe.  Out of different masses, tight, heavy, middling, achieved by variations of size or color.  Out of directional lines--vectors representing motion, velocity, acceleration, energy, etc.--lines which form significant angles and directions, making up one or several totalities.  Spaces or volumes, created by the slightest opposition to their masses, or penetrated by vectors, traversed by momentum.  None of this is fixed.  Each element can move, shift, or sway back and forth in a changing relation to each of the other elements in the universe.  Thus they reveal not only isolated moments, but a physical law or variation among the elements of life.  Not extractions, but abstractions.  Abstractions which resemble no living things except by their manner of reacting."

Calder: The Brass Family, wire, 1929 (64" ht.) cowboy from Calder's circus
Circus, 1932, pen and ink, 20x29"
photo, partial view of Calder's circus, installed at the Whitney Museum, made of mixed materials, 1926-31 the lion from the circus

Calder's "Planetary" Change

Calder's familiarity with scientific instruments and his understanding of kinetics began to unite with his interest in the universe and cosmic imagery, as well as with his exposure to the European avant-garde artists (in particular, to Mondrian) and to thinking about the fourth dimension, in his early abstract constructions, some of which moved and some of which were static.
Grand Orrery, 1733
Universe, 1931, wire and wood, 36" ht. Universe, 1934, motorized, 40" ht.

Calder said that "the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the universe, or part thereof.  For that is rather a large model to work from.  What I mean is that the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the real source of form....A very exciting moment for me was the planetarium--when the machine was run fast for the purpose of explaining its operation; a planet moved in along a straight line, then suddenly made a complete loop of 360 degrees off to one side, and then went off in a straight line in its original direction."

The unpredictability of movement and machines

By 1932 Calder was "composing motions" for his sculpture.  There are a variety of sources for his experiments with movement: nature, Duchamp, dance and the circus, machines, the Bauhaus, and in ways that are not immediately apparent, the art of the renaissance and the baroque periods.  What Calder appeared to be doing, in the eyes of critics and observers, was translating the gesture of drawing into a rhythmic gesture, which then became the kinetic experience of his mobiles.
Calder: Dancers and Sphere, 1936, motorized (ballet mobile) Calder: The White Frame, 1934 (motorized, 7'6 x 9')

Calder's early works exploited mechanized forms of movement, often attempting to create patterns that would appear to be random but were not.  These gave way to wind-driven mobiles as some predictability in the mechanized mobiles could not be entirely eliminated.  The wind-driven mobiles also allowed for the possibility of covering large areas of space in random movements.  This goal and interest led him quite naturally, and perhaps not surprisingly, to dance.  Like dance, his mobiles tend to be theatrical, and need to be observed over a lengthy duration of time in order to be fully appreciated or experienced.  The shapes which rotated and moved independently, creating new relationships with each other, could be likened to dancers.  Calder was a choreographer of these shapes; soon he would be a choreographer of a fountain at the 1939 NY World's Fair, and eventually he was designing costumes and moving stage sets for Martha Graham.  Calder's conceptualization of the mobile could be taken as a conceptualization of dance.  In other words, for Calder, the mobile involved the act of moving forms through space.  To the extent that choreography dictated the movement of the dancers' bodies, it could be called a motorized mobile.

Calder: Water ballet for the Gen. Motors Pavilion at the NY World's Fair, 1939
Calder: Universe, 1974, installed at the Sears Tower in Chicago
Calder: Calderberry Bush, 1932 (7' ht.) Calder: The Little Spider, 1940 (55" ht.)

His interest in live movement and in resemblances or parallels between body movements and mechanical movements led to his involvement in theater and ballet: with Martha Graham (1936), a set for a performance of Socrate, by Erik Satie (1936), a production of his own "ballet": Work in Progress, in Rome, 1968.

Calder: one scene from Work in Progress, at the Rome Opera House, 1968

With his stabiles, such as the monument below, the work obviously doesn't move--but the person does.

La Grande Vitesse, 1969, the Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI (55' in width)

When asked whether machine or nature had influenced him more, Calder replied: "Nature.  I haven't really touched machinery except for a few elementary mechanisms like levers and balances.  You see nature and then you try to emulate it."