Stuck in Mobiles with the Avant Garde Again

Alexander Calder. Letter to Rue Shaw. Midwest MS Arts Club.
Jean Arp. Arrangement According to Chance, 1917.

On the occasion of Alexander Milne Calder’s birth on this day in 1846, the opportunity is taken to acknowledge his grandson, Alexander Calder, whose own July 22 birthday went unremarked in our digital annals.

Alexander Milne Calder was born on August 23 in 1846. Calder was a sculptor whose 1894 statue of William Penn presented the famous Quaker as a stoic, clean-shaven version of Buffalo Bill, complete with cleft chin and vertiginous ten-gallon. Quaker Oats devotees would hardly recognize him. Calder’s son and grandson, Alexander Stirling and “Sandy,” would become well-known sculptors in their own right. Sandy, in particular, left an especially influential legacy when he died in 1976. Famous for kinetic sculptures that utilized wire, weights, and pulleys, the grandson Calder’s signature creations were termed “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp. Like all good French artist-intellectuals, Duchamp chose the word for its wealth of signification, communicating both “mobility” and “motivation.” Aside from whatever crass double entendre Duchamp might have been making (which cannot be confirmed at this moment, but can you put anything past the man who once brought a urinal to an art gallery?), he was probably being ironic: Calder’s mobiles, consisting of abstract shapes suspended from wire and moved in all directions by the wind, were anything but “motivated” in any intentional sense. This accorded with the zeitgeist of the avant garde of the first half of the twentieth century, which reflected the apparent senselessness of world events in their work. Jean Arp’s “Arrangement According to Chance” embodies the philosophy, and serves as a companion to the work of Calder. (Arp referred to Calder’s more static, less mobile sculptures as “stabiles”).

The note pictured above, sent to the president of the Arts Club of Chicago in 1945, demonstrates another reason Calder fit right in with the Dadaists, Surrealists, et al. In it, he describes his stovetop invention for avoiding the overflow of boiling milk: a system of weights and balances constructed from scrap metal, not unlike his much larger mobiles. In Calder’s illustration, a dish of milk sits atop a gas flame. One end of a wire is weighted down in the milk with an old aluminum cup; an empty tin sits at the other end on an adjustable platform. “When the milk rises in the pot the tin can is dumped on the floor,” Calder writes, “making a horrible noise. Thus through nervousness one’s attention is held.” The combination here of engineering, practicality, and elegance is the same which produced Calder’s sculptures. By turning the banal, the everyday into the occasion for artistic engineering, Calder gestured toward the more radical project of the avant garde, which had already been taken to its logical conclusion, in 1917, by Duchamp with “Fountain,” the infamous urinal-on-a-pedestal.