There is a running joke between some of my friends and I that ‘you’re not a museum unless you have an Alexander Calder piece in your collection on display.’ Now, of course this is a sarcastic joke, but there is some validity to it. Calder was an American sculpture best known for his innovative “mobile” sculptures who gained prominence in the art world in the 1920s. He created over 16,000 pieces of art throughout his life and they are in many of the world’s largest museums including The Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery of Art.
Personally, it seems as though every large museum I visit I see a Calder piece or two. Each time I see his work I chuckle to myself for a second and think “ahh, so here is their Calder piece.” Most recently, I saw his work during my visits to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
I started asking myself, “I wonder why everyone has Calder pieces??” I mean, I knew a little bit about Calder, but clearly not enough. I thought, “if he is in damn near every museum I visit, I should probably know more about him.” My research started to take shape, and though I already knew he was a trailblazer when it came to displaying sculptures, I had not realized he basically pioneered kinetic sculptures.
Kinetic art is defined as “art that contains movement perceivable by the viewer or that relies on motion for its effect” and Calder’s “mobile” sculptures essentially birthed this genre of art. Speaking of mobiles, I didn’t realize it, but the mobiles that hang and spin above babies’ cribs did not exist before Alexander Calder! The way in which he hung sculptures from the ceiling inspired this retail product. He didn’t stop there though. Calder is credited for re-imagining sculptures and the way they take up space. During the time he was creating, sculptures had always been displayed on pedestals. He took them off the plinths and put them directly on the floor, onto the wall, and of course on the ceiling.
Calder was one of the first artists that immensely benefited from advancements in photo and video productions. Seeing his work on a screen or in a photograph helped to build anticipation and a desire to view his work in person. Nowadays, many artists like James Turrell (image 1) and Ai Weiwei (image 2) benefit from these advancements. In the 1950 film “Works by Calder” you can see exactly what I’m talking about. Seeing his work in motion is extremely captivating, even 70 years later.
I’m so glad I took the time to learn about Alexander Calder and all that makes his work so valuable - he was a true visionary and trailblazer. The next time I walk into a museum and look up to see a Calder piece hanging from the ceiling I’ll definitely appreciate it more while proceeding to text my friends, “you’re not a museum if you don’t have an Alexander Calder.” After reading this I hope you’ll do the same.