"Why must art be static? You look at an abstraction, sculptured or painted, an entirely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect but it is always still. The next step in sculpture is motion." (Alexander Calder, cited in 'New York World Telegram', 11 June 1932).
Mobile au plomb is one of the first moving sculptures that Calder made. Executed in 1931, it is also one of the artist's first abstract works and belongs to an important period of artistic breakthrough that produced many of Calder's most beautiful sculptures.
Calder's art went through a complete transformation in 1930 after a visit he made to Mondrian's studio that both overwhelmed him and convinced him of the inherent beauty of abstract form. "This visit gave me a shock," Calder recalled. "A bigger shock even, than eight years earlier, when off Guatemala I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had heard the word 'modern' before, I did not consciously know or feel the term 'abstract'. So now, at thirty -two, I wanted to ... work in the abstract."
The abstract sculptures using wire and simple geometric shapes that Calder created soon after his visit to Mondrian, not only reflected the profound change and maturation of his own work, but also transformed overnight the possibilities of what modern sculpture could be. When Calder exhibited his new work at the Galerie Percier in Paris a few months later in 1931, his sculptures immediately drew praise from his avant-garde colleagues. Indeed, Calder was formally invited by Mondrian, Arp, Léger, Delaunay and Hélion to join them in the group 'Abstraction-Création'. These artists had instantly recognised the implications of Calder's new sculpture and how, in one seemingly simple step his work, had translated the tension and harmony which they sought in their painting into a profound three-dimensional reality.
Yet even before the Galerie Percier exhibition had opened, Calder had begun work on a new series of sculptures that took his breakthrough even further by making the constructions move. Some sculptures were hand-operated by the turning of a crank, some by electric motors and some, through a carefully engineered use of balance and counterbalance, by chance currents in the air. Mobile au plomb is one of this first series of moving sculptures and like many of the works that followed, it takes its name from Marcel Duchamp who, a year after this work was made, was asked by Calder to provide a name for such new moving constructions. Instantly Duchamp, who had himself experimented with kinetics in the 1920s, suggested the word 'mobile' which, in French, not only suggests something that moves, but also means motive.
Calder's first mobiles were a logical step from the developments made by the static abstractions he had exhibited at the Galerie Percier. Like these abstract constructions, the mobiles were also attempts to suggest a new world of abstract possibility and had strong parallels with contemporary understandings of planetary movement in the cosmos. As Calder recalled, "I think at the time (1930) and practically ever since, the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof, for that is a rather large model to work from. What I mean is the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colours and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some rest, while others move in a peculiar manner, seems to me the ideal source of form. I would have them deployed, some nearer together and some at immense distances. And great disparity among all the qualities of these bodies, and their motions as well." (quoted in, What Abstract Art means to me, Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18 (Spring 1951).
Influenced by the planetary display he saw at the Paris Planetarium, Calder often remarked that it was his impossible dream to show a simple sphere alone in space with no visible means of support. He was similarly fascinated by both the appearance and the mechanisms of the orreries that served in the 18th and 19th Centuries as visual guides to the workings of the Copernican concept of our solar system. As Mobile au plomb illustrates, there is often a close correlation between these and the sense of infinite space created by many of Calder's sculptures.
However, in the early 1930s, Calder was not alone in his preoccupation with cosmology. Many fellow abstract artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy were at this time also deeply interested. The well-publicised discovery of a new ninth planet in the solar system, Pluto, in early 1930 added to the topicality of the subject and this, along with the increasingly popular Einsteinian notion of the universe as being a dynamic rather than static entity, undoubtedly played some part in the creation of Calder's own mobile constellatory constructions.
The elegant and simple forms of the present work, moving gently in the changing air currents, are an abstract expression of that clearly has echoes of the cosmic motion of planets suggested conceptually in mechanical orreries. Mobile au plomb is however, primarily an extraordinarily elegant and carefully engineered exercise in balance and counterbalance. Perhaps the most refined of Calder's early mobile's, the present work is the most elegantly resolved example of his first mobiles and its simple yet effective compositional structure forms the blueprint for many of Calder's later mobiles and standing works known as 'stabiles'.
By deliberately limiting himself to simple geometric shapes, and to the most basic colours of red, black and white, Calder has constructed a freeform moving sculpture that not only creates a dynamic sense of balance and motion, but also explores a number of paradoxes within the logic of its own construction. In every part of the work, there is a play made between open and enclosed form and between lightness and heaviness. The pyramid stand made of wire encloses space while the rest of the sculpture with its planetary-like form moves freely in open space. The solid mass of the large white solar like sphere is deliberately contrasted with the open spheres and delicate lightness of its numerous counter-balancing satellites. Even between these satellites another counterbalance is made explicit through the deliberate contrast of the thin metal of the open spheres with the densely rolled lead of their counter-weights.
In all these ways, Mobile au plomb elegantly sets up a dramatic sense of tension and harmony in exactly the same way that was sought in two dimensions by abstract painters like Mondrian or Kandinsky. With its playful wire signature rounding off this subtle but dynamic conjunction of abstract form in space, Mobile au plomb is a supreme example of the magic of Calder's art.