Alexander Calder and Sculptures that Move

Art can be moving. It can also literally move–be it an ancient, hand-painted kite, or perhaps a ballet.  But can a piece of art appear to move without moving at all?

The Flamingo, Chicago.
The Flamingo, Chicago.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) has a series of sculptures that capture the imagination and interact with their surroundings in a way that is endlessly intriguing. I have gotten to know two of these sculptures very well over the past few years, thanks to my new home in Seattle and my frequent visits to Chicago: the Flamingo, in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, and the Eagle, at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. The sculptures truly are birds of a feather: both are a bold vermillion red, have arcing “legs,” invite viewers to walk through and around, and have a sense of movement that attracts the eye.

It should come as no surprise that Calder can make a still sculpture convey such movement: Calder is no less than the inventor of the mobile. Far more than a child’s toy, Calder’s mobiles explored balance of weight, shapes, and colors. The word “mobile,” used first by French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe Calder’s works, means both “moveable” and “motive” in French, a double meaning that Calder enjoyed. Calder focused on mobiles in his early career, and moved to sculpture later in life. Many of these sculptures were a type known as “stabiles,” which sounds to be in opposition with the mobile but in this case is not: one look at a Calder sculpture and you can confirm that even Calder’s stationary artwork seems to move. Arms reach up and around with a delicacy and sense of motion that we might not be surprised if one day, one of these great, metal birds lifted off from the ground and glided away with the wind.

Sculpture Details:

The Eagle, Seattle.
The Eagle, Seattle.

The Eagle. 1971. Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle. The Eagle was moved to this location in 2000. Paired with this piece is a text: “How does art come into being? Out of volumes, motion, spaces carved out within the surrounding space, the universe. Out of different masses–tight, heavy, middling, achieved by variations of size or color. out of directional lines–vectors representing motion, velocity, acceleration, energy, etc.–lines which form significant angles and directions, making up one or several totalities. Spaces or volumes, created by the slightest opposition to their masses, or penetrated by vectors, traveled by momentum… abstractions which resemble no living things except by their manner of reacting.” –Alexander Calder

The Flamingo. 1974. Federal Plaza, Chicago. The Flamingo is 53 feet tall and weighs 50 tons. It stands amidst three buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, united in material but contrasting in its swooping, curving shape.

The Eagle, Seattle.
The Eagle, Seattle.

References and further reading:

Of course you must go to the source! The Calder Foundation has a beautiful page that really shows off Calder’s dynamic artwork.

The Chicago History Fair has a nice little online handout about Federal Plaza.

The Smithsonian inventory of the Flamingo.

The Smithsonian inventory of the Eagle.


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