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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Form of kinetic sculpture, incorporating an element or elements set in motion by natural external forces. The term, which is also sometimes used more loosely to describe sculptural works with the capacity for motorized or hand-driven mechanical movement, was first used by Marcel Duchamp in 1932 to describe works by Alexander Calder. The notable feature of Calder’s sculptures, which were suspended by threads, was that their movement was caused solely by atmospheric forces, such as wind and warm air currents. Movement was not, therefore, merely suggested by the treatment, as in traditional sculpture, but took place directly and unpredictably in the object. Because the kinetic sequences of the mobile could not be fixed or programmed, predictability and repeatability were eliminated.

The main inspiration behind the development of the mobile was Duchamp, whose ready-made Bicycle Wheel (1913; untraced; editioned replica 1964; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig) gave rise to many innovations in Kinetic art. It consisted of a stool and a movable bicycle wheel rim, both of which came from a department store and were subjected to almost no artistic modification. What mattered to Duchamp was the different meaning given to the objects by their unfamiliar montage, their new context and the ability of the wheel to move. The development of the mobile was taken further by Aleksandr Rodchenko with his Oval Hanging Construction No.12 (c. 1920; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.), one of the first suspended structures in 20th-century sculpture. Consisting of a single sheet of plywood cut into concentric rings, the two-dimensional surface is made to appear like a three-dimensional structure by rotation. The circular trajectories of the parts appear spherical and weightless, suggesting the movement of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom. At about the same time the Dadaists, and especially Man Ray, were contributing to the development of the mobile. Man Ray’s Obstruction (1920; see A. Schwarz: Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination, New York, 1977, p. 149), for example, was built up from a pyramid of coat-hangers, each with two more hangers suspended from its ends. Man Ray continued this system in arithmetic progression until almost the whole room was obstructed. Because of its regular structure the pyramid had an even but changeable equilibrium; if only one hanger was set in motion, the whole pyramid oscillated with it. Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist sculpture Suspended Ball (iron and plaster, 1930–31; Zurich, Ksthaus.) can also be considered a mobile in that it has a sphere suspended above a crescent within a metal frame. Giacometti’s achievement was to enlarge the mobile concept decisively, so that formal innovation could be reconciled with the Surrealist interest in subconscious associations. If Rodchenko was primarily interested in rational, technical innovation, the Surrealists’ enthusiasm was aroused mainly by the possibilities of unconscious, playful expression opened up by the mobile.

In the early 1930s Calder, who was trained as an engineer, systematically set about developing the hanging sculpture into an art form in its own right. Through his association with José de Creeft, whom he had met in Paris in the 1920s, and through his study of wire sculpture and contemporary tin-plate toys, Calder evolved his own artistic standpoint. Calderberry Bush (steel rod, wood and sheet aluminium, 2.25×0.84×1.21 m, 1932; New York, Whitney) is regarded as his first standing mobile. Made up of a tetrahedron serving as the base and a balancing bar with a weight and a mobile hanging from its ends, it forms a balanced system. By using the principle of the lever of unequal length it has the configuration of an unstable equilibrium, so that any shock or touch produces a movement of the balancing bar. If a movement is imparted to the structure at any point, all the other motions change direction at the same time. About 1933 Calder produced the first mobiles hanging freely in space, including his Ebony Mobile (priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., p. 86), which combines elements from various formal tendencies; for example, the use of suspension recalls Man Ray’s Obstruction, while the shapes of the suspended elements themselves have links to the paintings of Arp and Miró. The sculpture makes visible a combination of forms moving between geometry and the sphere of biomorphic forms. In Calder’s later mobiles the range of hanging elements broadened to include spheres, bars, spirals, spindles, propellers and stars. Calder also produced large-scale mobiles for assembly halls, staircases, airports (e.g. 125, 1957) and urban sites, such as his Spiral (1958) in front of the UNESCO building in Paris.

Apart from Calder, the artist who worked most notably with mobiles was Bruno Munari. In 1933 he began producing his Useless Machines series, which, suspended by silk threads, were also set in motion by air movement and performed spherical rotations. In the late 1940s Lynn Chadwick began producing mobiles based on animal forms, and in the 1950s Kenneth Martin introduced additional aleatoric elements, such as a continual alternation from standstill to motion, which made the kinetic sequences considerably more complicated. In the 1950s and 1960s Jean Tinguely concentrated on using motors to animate his sculptures, and artists connected with the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, such as Julio Le Parc, Yvaral (Jean-Pierre Vasarely; b 1934) and Joël Stein (b 1926), also experimented with the mobile in the 1960s. The work of George Rickey in the same period confronted the viewer with quasi-scientific constructions, using high-grade steel and embodying universal joints (e.g. Summer III, stainless steel, 3.96×0.84 m, 1962–3; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn). Although Rickey’s hanging sculptures were restricted in their possible movements, they demonstrated the continuing interest in the enigmatic and incalculable aspects of the mobile.

Gerhard Graulich
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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