Spotlight Essay: Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder, Five Rudders, 1964

Spotlight Essay: Alexander Calder, Five Rudders, 1964
August 2008; updated 2016

Meredith Malone
Associate Curator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Standing ten feet six inches high, Alexander Calder’s Five Rudders is composed of a large tripod base painted bright red, which balances a sequence of black sheet-metal elements at its apex using a series of steel rods.1 Incorporating both a stabile, an abstract construction that is completely stationary, and a mobile, a sculptural work in which motion is a defining property, Five Rudders is a hybrid form known as a standing mobile, or a stabile-mobile.2 The bolted sheets of steel making up the base foreshadow the monumentality of some of the artist’s large-scale stabiles produced later in the decade, while the steel rods function as lever arms that support the kinetic element above. Both the name of the sculpture and the industrial materials employed in its fabrication suggest a direct link to the devices used to steer ships and aircrafts, yet the sculpture also evokes biomorphic imagery such as flower petals and butterfly wings, which belies the weighty character of its materials.3

Functioning like a weather vane, the vertically oriented black “rudders” can be placed in motion by a slight touch of the hand or by atmospheric forces such as wind. Because the kinetic sequences of the mobile depend on equilibrium and cannot be fixed or programmed, the movement of the rudders through space is intermittent and irregular rather than mechanically continuous or predictable. Jean-Paul Sartre’s eloquent description of the inherent tension between stasis and motion in Calder’s sculptures speaks to the effect of Five Rudders: “For each [mobile] Calder establishes a general fated course of movement, then abandons them to it: time, sun, heat and wind will determine each particular dance. Thus the object is always midway between the servility of the statue and the independence of natural events.”4 It is important to note that—in contrast to Calder’s lighter hanging mobiles, which exhibit a lively dynamism and often include an aural element—Five Rudders, given its scale and considerable weight, produces a more limited range of motion. It is only during periods of severe weather that the speed and velocity of the separate elements become highly erratic and the rudders freely collide.

Created in 1964,5 Five Rudders in many ways epitomizes Calder’s sculptural production at this late moment in his career. Since the 1950s the artist had devoted his greatest efforts to large-scale sculpture.6 In addition to making mobiles by hand, he dramatically increased the scale of his works, and as is the case with Five Rudders, he entered into collaborations with foundries in France and the United States to aid in the production of his sculptures, which were regularly commissioned as monumental public works.7
At the same time an international kinetic art revival was under way, and Calder was positioned—along with Marcel Duchamp, Naum Gabo, László Moholy-Nagy, and Vladimir Tatlin—as one of its major progenitors.

From the mid-1950s to roughly the end of the following decade, numerous artists sought a more experiential approach to sculpture and began exploring the subtleties in the phenomena of speed and time as an experience generated between work and spectator.8 Introducing actual motion into sculpture was one way to achieve an art reflective of the viewer’s shifting sensory and perceptual point of view. While Calder was frequently singled out in this period as one of the forefathers of the postwar craze for kinetic art, he was no longer considered an innovator in the field.9 The American kinetic artist and critic George Rickey put it bluntly in 1965: “[Calder] put the word ‘mobile’ into the language. Yet once he had hit on his image, thirty years ago, he developed it little. . . . Calder has not clarified the form of kinetic art. It has been left to others to survey the scope of Calder’s idiom and to establish his place as progenitor by their development from his postulates.”10 As artistic production changed dramatically in the postwar period—Pop art and Minimal art superseded Abstract Expressionism as the dominant artistic movements in the United States, and assemblage and kinetic art flourished internationally—Calder continued with his signature style.

It was in part because of his predictable production that Calder received numerous commissions for public works, both in the United States and abroad, throughout the last two decades of his life.11 During the postwar building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, public art was in high demand, and Calder’s stabiles and stabile-mobiles evinced a certain universal appeal—abstract yet retaining a strong resonance with natural forms, resolutely modern yet lighthearted—that rarely generated any significant public dissent.12 His works quickly became not only popular urban landmarks but also status symbols, as noted by the Calder scholar Joan Marter, indicating by their presence in cities, corporate headquarters, sculpture gardens, and college campuses the commitment of their patrons to the public arts.13 Calder’s own statements about his work in the postwar period compounded the notion that his sculptures were devoid of criticality or historical consciousness; according to him “the lugubrious aspect. . . is eliminated in my approach to sculpture. But the gay and the joyous, when I can hit it right, are there. . . . I want to make things that are fun to look at, that have no propaganda value whatsoever.”14

Miwon Kwon’s identification of three distinct paradigms within the postwar history of the public art movement in the United States—“art-in-public-places,” “art-as-public-spaces,” and “art-in-the-public-interest”—is particularly helpful in situating Calder’s work within the larger sociohistorical context of the 1960s. During the initial phase of the revival of public sculpture in the 1960s, public art was dominated by the “art-in-public-places” paradigm: modernist abstract sculptures by internationally established male artists—including Calder, Henry Moore, and Isamu Noguchi—that were basically enlarged replicas of works normally found in museums and galleries.15 What distinguished them as “public,” other than size and scale, was the fact that they were placed outdoors in parks, university campuses, civic centers, plazas, and airports, often removed from plinths and displayed directly on the ground, where access was unrestricted. In most cases Calder produced autonomous works of art whose relationship to a given site was largely incidental; the particular qualities of the site were taken into account only insofar as they affected the aesthetic quality of the artwork as installed.16

While the goals of the public art movement initially included the edification of the public and the beautification of the urban environment, by the mid-1970s many critics felt that neither goal was being met. Rather than making a genuine gesture toward public engagement, artworks sited in public places were understood as functioning more like advertisements for individual artists. Criteria for public art sponsorship and funding subsequently evolved to promote an integrationist approach in which the specificities of a given site were considered integral to the outcome of a work. Public art would no longer merely consist of an autonomous sculpture but would necessarily engage in a meaningful dialogue with the surrounding architecture or landscape.17

Calder’s large-scale works made an undeniable, if in hindsight conflicted, contribution to the resurgence of public art in both the United States and Europe during the postwar years. Larger than human scale but not monumental, Five Rudders has, since its original installation in 1964 outside Steinberg Hall, become a readily identifiable symbol of the Kemper Art Museum. In its present location on the Museum’s sculpture plaza, its biomorphic imagery and dynamic forms add life to the rational elegance of the surrounding architecture. Five Rudders stands as a prominent example of Calder’s late experiments with wind-driven mobiles and ambitious, large-scale constructions while also serving as an important indicator of the changing conceptualization of public art in the highly volatile decade of the 1960s.


[1] Throughout his career Calder used mainly the primary colors, black, and white. While this may reflect a commitment to the orthodoxy of Neoplasticism (it was, after all, Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930 that instigated Calder’s turn to abstraction and eventually to the invention of his mobiles), Calder frequently discussed his choice of color as a means of achieving greater contrast: “I have chiefly limited myself to the use of black and white as being the most disparate colors. Red is the color most opposed to both of these—and then, finally the other primaries. The secondary colors and intermediate shades serve only to confuse and muddle the distinctness and clarity.” Alexander Calder, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18 (Spring 1951): 8.

[2] Calder first developed the standing mobile in the mid-1930s and then refined it in the 1940s, creating much larger variations throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s. His largest standing mobile, Spirale (1958), is installed on the grounds of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

[3] Joan Marter, a leading scholar on Calder’s work, connects the bolting technique used to join the steel forms and the paddle-like shapes directly to Calder’s fascination with ships and shipbuilding. See Marter’s analysis of Five Rudders in Joseph D. Ketner et al., A Gallery of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1994), 164. Calder’s early works from the 1930s have a strong Surrealist vein running through them, and even in this much later piece, the Surrealist biomorphism characteristic of the work of his close friends Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy is still very much in evidence.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Les Mobiles de Calder,” originally published in the exhibition catalog Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations (Paris: Galerie Louis Carré, 1946), 9–19; reprinted in The Aftermath of War: Jean- Paul Sartre, trans. Chris Turner (Calcutta: Seagull, 2008).

[5] Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg purchased Five Rudders from the artist specifically for the Washington University Gallery of Art, which later became the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

[6] In 1960 Calder discussed the scale of his work and his many commissions, stating, “There’s been an agrandissement in my work. It’s true I’ve more or less retired from the smaller mobiles. I regard them as sort of fiddling. The engineering on the big objects is important. . . . Lots of times companies or government agencies have a big vacuum in their projects that they feel ought to be filled—that’s where I come in.” Alexander Calder, in Geoffrey T. Hellman, “Onward and Upward with the Arts: Calder Revisited,” New Yorker, October 22, 1960, 169; reprinted in Marla Prather, Alexander Calder, 1898–1976 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 279.

[7] According to Joan Marter, when working with fabricators, Calder would oversee the execution of his large works, approving all enlargements of his original maquettes and supervising the bolting and buttressing. See Marter, Alexander Calder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 229. Calder also severely restricted the number of works created from any one maquette. In an unpublished letter dated September 18, 1964, to William N. Eisendrath Jr., then curator of the collections at Washington University, Calder assured Eisendrath that Five Rudders was the only larger version in existence and that he would “see to it that it remains so. As a matter of fact the only time I have made 2 of any model is when I first made a moderate sized enlargement—and then wanted to increase that size.”

[8] The postwar reception of kinetic art is marked by a split history, stemming from its scientific attitude, on the one hand, and its reception as merely playful entertainment, on the other. For more on this, see Pamela Lee, Chronophonia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 93–105, and Guy Brett, Forcefields: Phases of the Kinetic (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000). It is important to note that there was no single leader, manifesto, or aesthetic establishing a set program for postwar kinetic art. The movement was malleable enough to include a diversity of investigations into both perceived and actual motion. While Calder experimented with mechanical energy in the 1930s, for the most part he represented those interested in the movement of an object through natural forms of energy.

[9] It is generally accepted that the 1920s through the 1930s was the most significant period in Calder’s development of a personal idiom. See Marter, Alexander Calder, 98.

[10] George Rickey, “The Morphology of Movement, a Study of Kinetic Art,” in The Nature and Art of Motion, ed. György Kepes (New York: George Braziller, 1965), 113.

[11] From the mid-1950s until his death in 1976, Calder devoted his greatest efforts to large-scale sculpture, making more than three hundred monu- mental works, which were fabricated at an ironworks and designed for the outdoors. See Marla Prather, “1953–1976,” in Alexander Calder, 279. The vast majority of Calder’s monumental works were stabiles, which could withstand the elements more readily than kinetic works.

[12] Marter notes that Calder was also considered a safe choice for public works during the McCarthy era. Marter, Alexander Calder, 204.

[13] Ibid., 232. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, Calder’s monumental stabile La grande vitesse (1969) became a civic symbol, acting as the logo on official stationery and city garbage trucks.

[14] Alexander Calder, in Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (New York: Devin-Adair, 1957), 139–40.

[15] See Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 60.

[16] Ibid., 63. Calder selected the original location for Five Rudders on Forsyth Boulevard, in front of the Museum’s home in Steinberg Hall, while on a trip to St. Louis in 1964.

[17] For more on the history of public art in the late 1970s and after, see Kwon, One Place after Another, 66–99, and Harriet F. Seine, Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

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Image Credit

Alexander Calder, Five Rudders, 1964. Painted sheet metal and rods, 126 x 98 1/4 x 112". Gift of Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg, 1964. WU 4220.