EARLY 20TH-CENTURY Modernism swiftly kicked aside the starched Edwardian aesthetic, so it was hardly surprising when the art of the time literally began to move. The photographer and multimedia artist Man Ray created “Obstruction” in 1920, a dangling assemblage of 63 perfectly balanced wooden hangers that resembled a Gothic chandelier, casting a tumble of shadows on the wall. In the same year, the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo debuted “Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave),” thought to be the first motorized sculpture, fashioned from a steel rod inserted into a wooden base: At the press of a button, a hidden motor caused the metal to oscillate, creating a helix.
But it wasn’t until a decade later that the most iconic moving art appeared: Alexander Calder’s mobiles. Their creation was largely the result of a 1930 visit by the burly Pennsylvania-born sculptor to the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian. The Dutch painter eschewed the typical paint-splattered garret: His workspace was a diorama of his oeuvre, the walls covered with cardboard rectangles in grays, whites and his signature primary colors, his sofa blocky blood-red and black with oblong throw cushions. Smitten, Calder — who had before that point used his mastery of bent wire to create figurative works such as “Calder’s Circus” (1926-31) — knew he needed to find a way to animate those shapes. Mondrian, as Calder recalled in a 1937 essay for “The Painter’s Object” anthology, thought it was a terrible idea.
Using his own set of rounded planetary cutouts that evoked the work of his friend the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró as well as the early 20th-century Swiss Dadaist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Calder originally powered his sculptures with motors. He quickly realized that the shapes should drift on their own, obeying the laws of physics. Upon seeing the first ones in 1931, the French-American Dadaist Marcel Duchamp gave them their name, which suggested movement but was also a pun: “Mobile” is the French word for “motive,” the reason behind the crime. Working from his studio in Litchfield County, Conn., Calder used a system of weights and balances known as “tension whippletree” to rig larger and more complicated hanging sculptures, some of which spanned more than 70 feet. Making thousands of mobiles over the course of his career, which ended with his death in 1976, he is one of the few artists to create and then entirely dominate a form.
His influence transcended visual art. The avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, who befriended Calder in the 1930s and who referred to his own works as “organized sound” for their off-kilter rhythms, was inspired by the mobiles. Frank Zappa also compared his music to Calder’s sculptures, describing his cerebral, often atonal songs as “a multicolored whatchamacallit, dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal dingleberries on the other end.” The image of Calder’s brightly hued forms became a leitmotif of midcentury pop futurism, trickling down to spawn a generation of whimsical crib mobiles and wind chimes.
SO DOMINANT WERE Calder’s dangling masterpieces that other artists avoided the form for much of the past century, perhaps from fear they might be labeled derivative. But now, artists are exploring kinetic sculpture once more. Enough time has passed that Calder, while still towering, has ceded room for others to sway beside him. The border between design and art has become more porous; traditional techniques, from block printing to hand-weaving, are no longer dismissed as merely decorative. Ours may be a perfect era for art, again, to move.
Using fresh materials — wax, copper, mesh, mirror — designers such as Volta, a collaboration between the couple Otxo and Mario Conti in Barcelona, and the Austin-based Corie Humble are exploring motion and ephemerality anew. Xavier Veilhan, 55, who represented France in the 2017 Venice Biennale, creates enormous constructions with hanging spheres and jewel shapes in resin, carbon and steel. The Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Akashi, 35, wraps slender hand-dipped candles around a sculpted copper loop hung from the ceiling; the piece spins slowly with kinetic force as it burns, tracing broad circles of wax on the floor. She gives no instruction as to how or when its owners should ignite or extinguish it, wanting viewers to “experience the object as it travels through space, changing,” she says. Ida Elke, a 40-year-old Danish artist and designer, makes simple geometric mobiles from double-sided acrylic mirrors and brass sticks, held together with beeswax-coated string, which recall Dan Flavin’s neon sculptures. “I investigate how light, reflections and kinetics interfere with space,” she says, “and make us aware of how we perceive it.”
Then there’s the New York artist B. Wurtz, 70, who creates playful stationary sculptures from airy quotidian items, including mesh bags and feather dusters that dangle from a burst of wire stems tethered to a wooden stand. They nod gently, like fritillaria. “I think of them as plants in the breeze, in their own way, completely alive,” Wurtz says. Calder also made “stabiles,” so named by the German-French artist Jean Arp in 1932, which combine tenuity and substantiality, flow and stasis — and allowed the artist to push his form in new directions. The key was to “follow the greater laws, and not only appearances,” Calder wrote in 1932, “thus arriving at a new possibility of beauty.”
Set design: Edward Ballard at Mary Howard studio. Retouching: Cason Latimer