This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York under application number A07298.
In 1922, sailing as a boiler-room fireman on a cargo ship bound for San Francisco from New York, Calder experienced an early inspiration. He recalls in his autobiography, "There were great coils of hawser on the deck, and when off duty I used to like to sleep on them. It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed me the most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system" (A. Calder quoted in M. Gibson, Calder, New York, 1988, p. 11).
Calder also noted, "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" (ibid, p. 12). Moon Phases seems to refer directly to Calder's 1922 revelation. The large red sphere balances the mobile, as the sun anchors the solar system. The black forms ascend to a white crescent and a round white orb, implying passage of time, the moon phases of the work's title. The two elements of day and night share the sky replicating the paradox of dusk or dawn. Although the artist had been creating his signature mobiles for twenty years by the time he completed Moon Phases, he still returns to the original moment of inspiration, and to the primal desire to replicate the sense of wonder and awe.
Moon Phases is not, however, dependent on symbolism or narrative. The composition presents an entrancing play of shapes, colors and movements that provide a subject all their own and reflect the artist's early involvement with Surrealism and his friendships with Duchamp and Miro. In fact, Duchamp was responsible for naming Calder's unique objects. Calder remembered, "I asked him what sort of name I could give these things and he at once produced 'Mobile.' In addition to something that moves in French it also means motive" (A. Calder quoted in M. Gibson, Calder, New York, 1988, p. 55).
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, "A mobile does not suggest anything: it captures genuine living movements and shapes them. Mobiles have no meaning, make you think of nothing but themselves. They are, that is all; they are absolutes. There is more of the unpredictable about them than in any other human creation. No human brain, not even their creator's, could possibly foresee all the complex combinations of which they are capable. These hesitations, resumptions, gropings, clumsinesses, the sudden decisions and above all that swan-like grace make of certain mobiles very strange creatures indeed, something midway between matter and life" (J. Lipman, Calder's Universe, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1979, p. 261).