The Mobiles of Alexander Calder

mobiles of Alexander Calder modern art sculptures

Alexander Calder. Vertical Foliage, 1941. Sheet metal, wire, and paint. Calder Foundation, New York.

The Mobiles of Alexander Calder:

The mobiles of Alexander Calder take a magnificent place in the history of Modern Art. What we now see hanging above the beds of toddlers, entrancing young children everywhere, started as an avant-garde art undertaking. Calder was raised by a sculptor father and painter mother. He attended school for Mechanical Engineering before finally becoming a full-time artist. Both his personal and educational backgrounds set him up for his foray into kinetic sculpture.

Calder would often sculpt out of wire, a technique that many other artists have used on the way to finished sculptural product. Calder, on the other hand, used wire to create movement in his sculptures “which have a playful, mechanical sensibility akin to wind-up toys”. He even created a number of children’s toys that would move when pulled on one way or another. The next step on the way to his ‘mobiles’ was the Calder Cirque. Calder created a series of metal figures that would move around a circus tent. He performed the show for small groups of friends with his wife, Louisa. The Calder Cirque is now at the Whitney in New York City.

The term ‘mobile’ was given by Marcel Duchamp. Calder on his mobiles in 1943:

mobiles of Alexander Calder modern art sculptures

Alexander Calder. Cascading Flowers, 1949. Sheet metal, wire, and paint. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

A mobile in motion leaves an invisible wake behind it, or rather, each element leaves an individual wake behind its individual self … In setting them in motion by a touch of the hand, consideration should be had for the direction in which the object is designed to move, and for the inertia of the mass involved. A slow gentle impulse, as though one were moving a barge, is almost infallible. In any case, gentle is the word.

Calder made mobiles that were driven by an electric motor which allowed for more precise motion and movement, instead of being at the mercy of the wind. About his non-motorized mobiles, Calder explained that difficulty that “all of them react to the wind, and are like a sailing vessel in that they react best to one kind of breeze.”

Calder’s mobiles are spectacular for many reasons, one of which is that they are created to interact with the world around them – a type of art that Calder was one the forefront of exploring. The hanging mobiles are altered by air and touch, allowing for a dynamic expression in space. Calder also created standing mobiles, which were placed on the ground but still had interactive hanging components.

mobiles of Alexander Calder modern art sculptures

Alexander Calder. Southern Cross [Maquette], 1963. Sheet metal, wire, and paint. Calder Foundation, New York.


“Alexander Calder.” SF MoMA. Accessed January 30, 2017.

Calder, Alexander. ‘Mobiles’ in The Painter’s Object, ed. Myfanwy Evans, 62-67. London: Gerold Howe, 1937.

Calder Foundation. Accessed January 30, 2017.

Hall, James. “Magnificent mobiles: the art of Alexander Calder.” The Guardian. October 23rd, 2015. Accessed January 30, 2017.

Mitgang, Herbert. “Alexander Calder at 75: adventures of a free man.” Art News. December 19th, 2015. Accessed January 30, 2017.

Pritchard, Claudia. “Alexander Calder: The mechanical engineer and his pioneering mobiles.” The Independent. November 1st, 2015. Accessed January 30, 2017.

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