One of the fun facts of art in Philadelphia is the direct line you can draw between the art of three generations of Calder sculptors, ending with Alexander “Sandy” Calder, born on July 22, 1898. Start with Philadelphia City Hall, covered by sculptures done by Sandy’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, including the statue of William Penn, still the largest statue on top of any building in the world. Move down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Logan Circle and see the Swann Memorial Fountain by Sandy’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder (who also did the statue of Dr. Samuel Gross , of Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, standing behind Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia). Finally, walk or run up the “Rocky steps” of the PMA and climb the Grand Staircase of the main room. At the top you can look past Sandy’s mobile Ghost (above) and see his father’s and grandfather’s sculptures in the hazy distance. No family of artists has left the same indelible impression on Philadelphia as the Calder family.
Marcel Duchamp, one of the many modernist artists Calder knew and was influenced by, coined the term “mobile” for Calder’s once-revolutionary kinetic sculptures seemingly riding on the air as they hung from the ceiling. Now that mobiles are the commonplace toy of nurseries everywhere, it’s hard to fathom just how unique these sculptures were when they first burst upon the scene. As light and delicate as his mobiles appear, Calder’s monumental-sized “stabiles” dig their roots firmly in the ground. I remember walking around Calder’s Eagle when it stood on the East Terrace of the PMA in late 1999 and early 2000 (pictured above in its home in Seattle, Washington). The orange paint chips scattered around the base testified to its weightiness and how difficult it was to swing into place. Some friends and I, out celebrating the incoming millennium, walked around the base that New Year’s Eve before enjoying the fireworks.
Calder’s mobiles and stabiles make modern art accessible and even friendly for the casual observer or even the diehard modern art hater. The room at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC filled with Calder’s mobiles (one example appears above) remains one of my favorites in their modern art wing. It was like standing in a environment of exotic birds or giant, beautiful butterflies, constantly moving on the almost imperceptible air currents. Rumors have milled about for years of a Calder museum to be erected near the PMA here in Philadelphia, but that plan sadly seems dead. Calder truly created art for the masses, especially children, who can see and experience his living art free of all extraneous interpretation and meaning. Calder’s art follows Archibald MacLeish’s maxim for poetry: it “should not mean/ But be.”