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In the fall of 1945 Marcel Duchamp visited Alexander Calder in Roxbury, Connecticut, where, among heaps of precious detritus in the sculptor’s famously overflowing studio he encountered a new group of miniature, pieced-together objects fashioned from metal scrap. During the war, when industrial materials were scarce, artists who used them exhibited resourcefulness or went empty-handed. Calder found ways to keep working, making his wartime years and the period immediately following especially productive. In one instance he sacrificed an aluminum boat, transforming this sturdy utilitarian form into a multitude of bit parts—circles, crescents, fin- and leaf-life shapes—and sending them aloft on interdependent wires. Duly impressed, Duchamp arranged for Calder to have a solo show at the Galerie Louis Carré in 1946, his first in Paris since 1933. The predominant color scheme of the exhibition was black, white, and red, so it is unlikely that this colorful work, which displays all the primaries and no black, would have been included. But it nonetheless belongs to a group of Calder’s small works in which scarcity beget ingenuity and a deep, joyous lyricism.Simple geometric and organic shapes (those leaf- and fin-like forms as well as abstracted amoebas, eggs, feathers, fishtails, and the like) are key components of Calder’s “mobiles,” so named by Duchamp in 1931 during an earlier visit to the artist’s studio, that time in Paris, where the American artist maintained a studio intermittently between 1926 and 1933. “Mobile” initially described the motorized and hand-cranked sculptures Calder made in the early 1930s, but the term was extended to the nonmotorized kinetic objects for which he became best known. These are works that in 1943 Calder recommended moving with “a slow gentle impulse ... gentle is the word.” In French, the noun mobile means “motive,” and Calder liked the double entendre this formed with the adjective common to both English and his adopted French. In 1932 Jean Arp christened Calder’s nonkinetic sculptures “stabiles,” a perfect complement to Duchamp’s term, and thus paired, the words quickly joined the burgeoning lexicon of modern art.This untitled work is a standing mobile, or a mobile with a stabile base. It features the tripod structure that Calder perfected—in this instance with legs shaped into opposing curves that bring to mind the comic disarray of a joker’s hat. Festooned, the surmounting structure counterbalances a hovering yellow crescent opposite a collection of circular metal disks that branch out, roughly descending in size from the largest, closest to the base, to the smallest. This outermost circle is nothing short of audacious, the merest pinpoint of matter intent on shaping space.Calder’s mobiles are often described in terms of weightlessness. This is partly because they take up a lot of space for their actual mass. They move irregularly, in infinite variations, like swirling tree branches. Yet despite their ability to induce a vision of weightlessness, these mobiles are among the carefully weighted and counterbalanced artworks ever made. They demonstrate dynamic equilibrium set into motion, especially in the small works, by a well-aimed puff of air.Elizabeth Finch

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