7 Artists Who Created Innovative Mobiles—beyond Alexander Calder

Alina Cohen
Aug 20, 2018 5:22PM

Alexander Calder’s name has become synonymous with the mobile, a kinetic sculpture propelled by its own equilibrium.

In 1930, after years of working with wire—creating complex circus scenes, sculptures of Josephine Baker, horses, elephants, and other subject matter both fantastic and timely—the American artist, then living in Paris, visited Piet Mondrian’s studio. Seeing light shift over the colored cardboard rectangles Mondrian had tacked to his wall, Calder considered how these shapes would look in motion.

Calder described the event in an essay included in the 1937 book The Painter’s Object: “It was very lovely, with a cross-light (there were windows on both sides), and I thought at the time how fine it would be if everything there moved; though Mondrian himself did not approve of this idea at all.”

Mondrian continued painting while Calder began to develop colorful, oscillating structures made from configurations of metal parts. At first he used cranks and motors to make the components move. Eventually, Calder dismissed these devices in favor of more natural catalysts: air, light, humidity, and touch. Throughout his career, he created dozens of suspended sculptures that dangle from the ceiling, as well as standing objects whose “arms” wave in the air.

While the avant-garde artist may not have invented mobiles, the world has come to refer almost exclusively to his free-moving creations. Yet several traditions prefigure his kinetic experiments. Remains of wind chimes made from bone, wood, bamboo, and shells dating as far back as 3,000 B.C. have been found throughout Southeast Asia. Their clanging, a superstitious belief held, could keep evil spirits away (although the Chinese were the first to appreciate the musical and artistic properties of the wind chime, around 1,100 B.C.). The Ancient Romans produced similar objects called tintinnabula. Some peculiar examples feature phallic designs that promised to bring good luck. Traditional Scandinavian Christmas ornaments called himmeli (developed hundreds of years ago) resemble voluminous diamonds or other geometric forms. Originally created from thin reeds or straw, modern-day interpretations often employ metal. The Finnish hung himmeli above their tables to usher in a bountiful crop season. Now, Brooklyn millennials are more likely to use the structures to hang air plants.

It wasn’t until Marcel Duchamp visited Calder’s studio in 1931 and beheld these new creations that the word “mobile” came to describe such objects. To arrive at the term, Duchamp combined “motion” and “motive” in French. Here, we survey seven artists whose innovative projects reject stasis in favor of perpetual spinning, shifting, rising, falling. In other words, they embrace change.

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)


Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade (a sculpture composed of everyday objects) was also, in a sense, a mobile. Bicycle Wheel (1913) simply comprises a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool. The work is poised for viewer engagement—simply brush the sculpture, and the work will revolve. Yet by calling it art, Duchamp also restricted such interference: gallery visitors aren’t supposed to touch the displays. Bicycle Wheel, then, might be better considered a mobile full of potential energy; given gallery etiquette, it remains motionless.

Man Ray (1890–1976)

Man Ray
Obstruction (Coat Hangers), 1948
Bruce Silverstein Gallery

In 1920, Man Ray assembled 63 wood coat hangers in a pyramid-like formation, dangling the whole thing from the ceiling by a wire. The individual elements in the work, which he called Obstruction, appear to multiply row by row, resembling a three-dimensional family tree. As a member of the Surrealist movement, Man Ray was interested in exposing the uncanny in the everyday. In Obstruction, he transformed mundane home goods into sculpture, further defamiliarizing the objects by hanging them from the ceiling. As the work casts a shadow over viewers below, its mass becomes ominous, tinged with a dark humor.

Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966)

Alberto Giacometti’s hanging sculptures feature objects suspended in open metal boxes. In The Nose (Le nez), 1949, a bronze bust with an open mouth and a pointy, Pinocchio-length nose dangles by a rope affixed to the roof of the cage. Giacometti’s creation evokes a restrictive cell, its central figure unable to escape. Boule suspendue (Suspended Ball), 1930–31, presents an arrangement more surreal and erotic than threatening. A plaster sphere hangs by a string from a metal cage, swaying just above a banana-shaped plaster piece, but never touching it. This intimate gesture seems to transform the platform so it resembles a four-poster bed.

According to the Giacometti Foundation, such mobiles probably allowed the artist to pay homage to the “utilitarian objects which he admired in ancient and primitive societies,” like ceremonial spoons made by the Dan communities of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as African masks. Giacometti also created light fixtures throughout his career; notably, many of the artists who dabbled in mobile-making additionally experimented with functional design.

Bruno Munari (1907–1998)

Italian artist Bruno Munari literally wrote the book on the connection between art and design. Design as Art, originally published in 1966, attempts to elevate and refine all aesthetic production, from utilitarian objects like lamps and road signs to typography and advertisements. Yet he also celebrated the futility of art. In the 1930s Munari started making what he termed “useless machines”—delicate, whimsical mobiles comprised of materials such as colored cardboard, wood, wire, and cord. The connective elements are often so thin they’re nearly invisible, allowing the mobiles to create the illusion of shapes floating in the air. His “useless machines” subtracted purpose from his work, inviting viewers to simply look (though he did also fabricate workable hanging light fixtures).

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997)

Roy Lichtenstein
Landscape Mobile (Limoges), 1990
McClain Gallery

In his mobiles, Roy Lichtenstein translated his iconic comic book aesthetic into three dimensions. Cartoonish hanging shapes modeled in porcelain and resin succinctly suggest trees, the sun, clouds, and the sky. In some of the structures, Lichtenstein includes his characteristic Ben-Day dots. Notably, Lichtenstein’s mobiles are sturdier and less pliable than the work of many artists who made them. Accordingly, he termed his works “stabiles.” Landscape Mobile (Limoges), 1990, may also be seen as functional design: its basket-like base can be filled with flowers, making it into a very special planter.

Jean Tinguely (1925–1991)

Jean Tinguely is known for his zany, mechanized mobiles, which often look like motorized junk. Cobbling together such materials as metal wheels, tubes, wire, cast iron, wood, engines, and rear-view mirrors, he turned the detritus of industrial modern life into art. While Tinguely is most closely associated with the Dada movement, which both celebrated and condemned the chaos and nonsense of European society, some of his early work also suggests a clear lineage with Calder: Untitled (1954), with its bright red and yellow circles and delicate metal arms, looks like the spikier son of Calder’s gentle mobiles.  

Julio Le Parc (1928–)

Julio Le Parc
Mobile bleu sur blanc, 1960
Galeria Nara Roesler

Argentinian-born artist Julio LeParc, like Calder, looked to Mondrian for inspiration, beginning his career as an abstract painter. Early works such as gamme à quatre positions (1959), indicate a nascent interest in optical illusions. His carefully placed, interlocking bands of black, white, and gray paint appear to advance and recede. When he turned his attention to the mobile, Le Parc retained the optical intensity of his paintings, and connected the geometric shapes in complex hanging configurations. Three-dimensional works such as Mobile bleu sur blanc (1960) even resemble geometric abstractions when reproduced in photographs. In person, however, the rows and columns of blue wood and acrylic squares shift and reflect light, appearing in various formations from different points of view. LeParc’s work, like that of many others on this list, challenges viewers to consider perception, light, and the immediacy of aesthetic experience.

Alina Cohen