Excerpt from Jean-Paul Sartre essay on Alexander Calder MOBILES

"The sculptor is supposed to imbue something immobile with movement, but it would be wrong to compare Calder's art with the sculptor's. Calder captures movement rather than suggests it; he has no intention of entombing it forever in bronze or gold, those glorious, asinine materials that are by nature immobile. With vile, inconsistent substances, with tiny slivers of bone or tin or zinc, he fashions strange arrangements of stems and branches, of rings and feathers and petals. They are resonators or traps; they dangle at the end of the fine wire like a spider at the end of its silk thread or settle on a pedestal, wan, exhausted, feigning sleep; a passing tremor strikes them, animates them, is canalized by them and given a fugitive form -- a MOBILE is born.


Small local festival, an object defined by its movement and nonexistent apart from it, a flower that withers as soon as it stops moving, a free play of movement, like coruscating light. Sometimes Calder amuses himself by imitating a new form. For example, he once presented me with a bird of paradise with iron wings; a wisp of air brushing it while escaping through the window is enough to rouse the bird; it clicks, stands erect, spins, nods its crested head, rolls and pitches and then, as if in sudden obedience to an unseen signal, executes a slow turn with its wings spread. But most of the time it imitates nothing, and I know no other art less deceptive than his.

Sculpture suggest movement, painting depth or light. Calder suggests nothing; he captures and embellishes true, living movements. His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves; they simply are, they are absolutes. In his mobiles "chance" probably plays a greater part in any other creation of man. The forces at work are too numerous and too complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to foresee all possible combinations. For each of them Calder establishes a general scheme of movement, then abandons it; the time, the sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance. Thus the object is always midway between the servility of statues and the independence of natural events. Each of his evolutions is an inspiration of the moment; it reveals his general them but permits a thousand personal variations. It is a little hot-jazz tune, unique and ephemeral, like the sky, like the morning; if you miss it, you will have lost it forever.

Valery said that the sea is a perpetual renewal. One of Calders objects is like the sea--and equally spellbinding: ever changing, always new. A passing glance is not enough; one must live with it and be bewitched by it. Then the imagination can revel in pure, ever-changing forms--forms that are at once free and fixed.

The movements of the object are intended only to please us, to titillate our eyes, but they have a profound, metaphysical meaning. The reason is that the mobiles have to have some source of mobility. Previously Calder used an electric motor; he now abandons his mobiles in midst of nature; in a garden or near an open window, they vibrate in the wind like aeolian harps. Fed on air, they respire and draw their life from the tenuous life of the atmosphere. Thus their mobility is of a very peculiar kind. Although they are human creations, they never have the precision and efficiency of movement of Vaucansons automatons. But the charm of the automaton resides in the fact that it agitates a fan or plays a guitar like a man, yet moves its hand with the blind, persistent rigor of purely mechanical translations. Against this, Calder mobiles move and hesitate, as if correcting a mistake by starting anew. I have seen in his studio a beater and a gong suspended high overhead; the slightest gust caused the beater to pursue the gong as it turned round; it would take aim, lash out at the gong, miss it by a hair, like an awkward hand, and then when least expected, strike and hit it squarely in the center, producing a frightening noise. But the movements are too artistically contrived to be compared with those of a ball rolling on a uneven plane and changing its course solely on the basis of irregularities encountered. They have a life of their own. One day when I was talking with Calder in his studio, a model which until then had remained at rest was seized, right in my presence, by a violent agitation. I retreated until I thought I was beyond its reach. Suddenly, just when the agitation had ceased and the model seemed lifeless, its long, majestic tail, which had not moved previously, indolently roused, as if regretfully, rotated in the air and grazed by nose. Their hesitations revivals, gropings, fumblings, abrupt decisions, and especially their marvelous swan-like nobility make of Calder mobiles strange creatures, halfway matter and life. Sometimes their movements seem to have a purpose and sometimes they seem to have lost their purpose along the way and to have lapsed into imbecile flctuations. My bird flies, wavers, swims like a swan, like a frigate; he is a bird, a single bird and then, suddenly, he falls apart and all that remains are slivers of metal traversed by vain tremors.

Calder mobiles, which are neither completely living nor completely mechanical and which constantly change but always return to their original positions, are like aquatic plants bent low by a stream, the petals of the sensitive plant, the legs of a headless frog, or gossamer caught in a updraft. In short, although Calder has no desire to imitate anything--his one aim is to create chords and cadences of unknown movements - his mobiles are at once lyrical inventions, technical, almost mathematical combinations and the perceptible symbol of Nature: great elusive Nature, squandering pollen and abruptly causing a thousand butterflies to take wing and never revealing whether she is the blind concatenation of causes and effects or the gradual unfolding, forever retarded, disconcerted and thwarted, of an Idea." Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Temps Modernes, 1963


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