‘When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises’ (A. Calder, quoted in E. Hutton and O. Wick (eds.), Calder, London 2004, p. 261).
‘The simplest forms in the universe are the sphere and the circle, I represent them by discs and then I vary them. My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement’ (A. Calder, quoted in K. Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York 1962, retrieved from www.calder.org [accessed 13 January 2015]).
‘I want things to be differentiated… but I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish that I had been a fauve in 1905’ (A. Calder, quoted in E. Hutton and O. Wick (eds.), Calder, London 2004, p. 89).
Crowned by a series of red, blue and yellow discs circling majestically around its slender body, Petit Mobile sur Pied exemplifies the dynamic sense of movement and colour that Alexander Calder inserted into his most memorable works. The graceful cascade of multi-coloured circles is achieved by carefully counterbalancing these delicate elements with a serpentine sliver of glistening metal that acts as both a visual and structural counter-balance within the work. Selected for the artist’s solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1959, its exquisite formal harmony bears witness to Calder’s exceptional talent both as an artist and as an engineer. Having initially trained in this line of work after leaving school, Calder’s technical grounding enables him to harness the physical forces of his chosen medium with carefully-calculated precision. His meticulous structural dynamics are combined with a bold use of colour which, when filtered through the sensation of movement, produces a spectacular optical and kinetic effect. For Calder, colour was not a representational force but rather an emotional one, much in the same vein as artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain who pioneered a non-literal approach to chromaticism. As Calder himself once commented, ‘I want things to be differentiated … but I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red. I often wish that I had been a fauve in 1905’ (A. Calder, quoted in E. Hutton and O. Wick (eds.), Calder, London 2004, p. 89).
Petit Mobile sur Pied is an exceptional example of the delicate and intricate works that Calder continued to make during a period which became increasingly dominated by larger, monumental pieces of outdoor sculpture. 1953 was a busy time for the artist; the previous year he had represented the United States at the Venice Biennale where he won the grand prize for sculpture. This recognition launched his monumental international career and during the period of large scale urban regeneration that followed the destruction of the Second World War, Calder’s iconic sculptures became coveted objects as city-planners sought to rejuvenate civic spaces across Europe. Although these commissions led to a general aggrandizement of his work, Calder never lost his passion for the physical contact with his materials. Despite the pressures put on him by these international commissions, he continued to make intimate works such as Petit Mobile sur Pied to ensure that he remained directly in touch with the artistic process that he loved so much.
Whilst Calder’s influential visit to Mondrian’s Parisian studio in 1930 is well documented as being the spark that ignited his interest in introducing colour and movement into sculpture, it is perhaps his friendship with Joan Miró that had the greatest influence on his career. The two men first met in 1928 and remained lifelong friends until Calder’s death in 1976. ‘We became very good friends,’ Calder once said, ‘and attended may things together I came to love his painting, his colour, his personages’ (A. Calder, quoted in E. Hutton and O. Wick (eds.), Calder, Miró, London 2004, p. 27). Their friendship was based on outsiders from the established art scene and reveled in their disdain of convention. From the early stages of their relationship, the pair explored the increasingly dominant field of abstraction – Calder prompted by his visit to Piet Mondrian’s atelier and Miró with his painterly forms that would eventually morph themselves into his iconic Constellations a few years later. The various coloured discs of Petit Mobile sur Pied recall the lyrical, semi-abstracted forms of Miró’s paintings, a visual relationship that is emphasised by the wire supports which recall the Spanish artist’s elegant sense of calligraphic line.
Petit Mobile sur Pied demonstrates the all-encompassing universality of Calder’s art. Working in his prime and yet still perpetually challenged by his own formal conundrums, Calder uses colour, form and balance to create a piece whose delicate execution belies its complex and masterful construction. As with all of Calder’s standing mobiles, the sculpture’s base becomes integral to the work’s composition, its delicate fiery red form reaching down from the work’s centre like the root of a plant or a tree trunk descending into the earth. The striking red, yellow and blue elements are united through a series of intricate mechanisms that allow them to move independently of each other without ever dominating or disrupting each other’s path. Though its structure conjures myriad formal associations, Petit Mobile sur Pied is not fettered by any direct notion of representation. Instead, it interacts with its environment and its viewer, functioning as an object in its own right. A push or a gust of wind will set its carefully balanced elements in motion, introducing the elusive element of chance that make Calder’s sculptures so fascinating. Calder’s gently moving organic forms orbit their central axis with effortless simplicity, as if marshaled by a master choreographer in an exquisite ballet of graceful proportions. As Calder himself said, ‘When everything goes right a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises’ (A. Calder, quoted in E. Hutton and O. Wick (eds.), Calder, London, 2004, p. 261).