name has become synonymous with the mobile, a
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 ’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
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.