history of mobiles

When everything goes right, a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises…
– Alexander Calder

Any history of mobiles would have to consist, to a large degree, of a treatise on the career of American artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976) who is credited with having invented the art form. An engineer by training, he began his artistic work with wire in the 1920s, creating crank-driven moving sculptures and other kinetic pieces which were termed ‘mobiles’ by Marcel Duchamps in 1931 to describe sculptural works in which motion is a defining property.

Perhaps inspired by oriental wind-chimes or orreries (toy-like models of the Solar System), and greatly influenced by his contemporaries Mondrian, Miró and Arp, Calder began to construct hanging works typically consisting of brightly coloured, abstract shapes fashioned from sheet metal and connected by wire much like a balance scale. These works, which he produced in a prolific manner from the early 1930’s to his death in 1976, have become what we generally associate with the term “mobile”, as opposed to its earlier definition referring to kinetic art in a broader sense. Thus, a succinct definition of the word “mobile” in a visual art context could be a type of kinetic sculpture in which an ensemble of balanced parts capable of motion is suspended freely in space.

Although not as familiar to the general public as Calder, sculptor George Rickey (1907-2002) also made significant contributions to the development of kinetic art including mobiles. Minimalist in style, his works are geometrical and subdued in terms of colour, almost always being starkly metallic.

While mobiles have now, in many respects, entered our everyday lives as decorations, baby-distracters and the end products of craft activities, the art form continues to offer endless possibilities for artists exploring volume and movement.