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The Calder Foundation’s Sandy Rower on “Calder: Hypermobility” at the Whitney


  • Alexander Calder, "Parasite," 1947. Sheet metal, wire and paint, 41 68 28 in. Calder Foundation, New York; promised gift of Holton Rower. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Calder's "Two Spheres," 1931, a mechanized sculpture of wood, wire and paint, with motor (21 1/2 × 11 in.). is being activated for the first time in decades at the Whitney. Calder Foundation, New York; promised gift of Holton Rower. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Alexander Calder's sculptures and mobiles fill the Whitney's eighth floor gallery. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • In 1934's "Black Frame," the artist put the elements of art on stage. Today the work, and others, are performed in “Calder: Hypermobility.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Calder's "Myrtle Burl," 1941. Wood, sheet metal, wire and paint, 24 1/2 × 20 × 16 in. Calder Foundation, New York; Mary Calder Rower Bequest, 2011. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • "Red Panel," c. 1934, Plywood, wood, sheet metal, wire and paint, with motors, 11 7/8 × 8 1/4 × 7 1/2 in. Calder Foundation, New York; promised gift of Alexander S. C. Rower (Sandy Rower). Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Hung at eye level against a dark blue wall, bright and breathtaking, the Whitney's own "Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry)" gives viewers a rare chance to experience Calder's work as it was mean to be seen. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Alexander Calder's "Half-circle, Quarter-circle, and Sphere," 1932, Sheet metal, wood and paint, with motor, 76 5/8 × 35 1/2 × 25 in. Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Adel Gorgy


Calder: Hypermobility” at the Whitney, organized in collaboration with the Calder Foundation, on view through October 23, offers a rare chance to understand how Alexander Calder’s work was meant to be experienced. Some three dozen works (and additional pieces that are brought in by the Calder Foundation for one-time displays) are being activated throughout the course of the exhibition. Sandy Rower, Calder’s grandson and president and chairman of the Calder Foundation discusses his grandfather’s work and the exhibition.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Did anything surprising to you come out of working on the show?

The whole premise of the show is unusual — the idea of installing Calder’s work the way he intended or at least trying to get as close to that as we can, given all the constraints of modernity these days. Owners don’t want people touching their sculptures. So how do you give people a personal, interactive experience while still preserving the works? That’s what’s different and that’s what’s exciting about the show.

Can you talk about the Calder Foundation’s role in the exhibition?

Something that’s been so extraordinary for us at the Foundation is presenting works of art which people don’t have much access to (except in a vitrine or at a distance) and actually bringing them into the gallery for one hour and talking about their significance and how they fit into Calder’s work, and then presenting them, performing them, moving them, activating them in ways that you never get to see. That’s been the most exceptional part of the show for me, personally.

Does the charm of Calder’s works belie their radicality?

Today, completely. That was one of the frustrations I had as a kid, seeing my grandfather’s work in exhibitions in the ‘60s, when I was really little, and in the ‘70s — until he died and then after he died, this kind of grave misunderstanding about who he was, what he was about, what he was getting at. What he was trying to communicate was minimized. His intellectual achievement was totally minimized by curators and people who thought they were honoring the artist, but that weren’t, because they didn’t understand what he was about — what he was getting it.

There are philosophical aspects in the works — questions of predetermination and fate — so much so that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about them. Does that still come through?

Yes, very much.... The earliest motorized work in the Whitney show is called “Two Spheres” that’s 1931.... If you look at it as some sort of choreography and ballet, that’s nice, but that’s not what it’s about. What it’s about — it’s nonobjective which makes it difficult.... My grandfather was actually quoted in 1932 about that very object, and the interviewer said the ball going up and down looked like a ball in a shooting gallery.... And my grandfather said that the balls in the shooting gallery have a utilitarian purpose and that these have no utility and no meaning. And that it was deeply emotional. So, no utility and no meaning and deeply emotional. And, then he said, if it did have a meaning, it would be easier to understand, but would not be worthwhile. So how do you understand that in 1931 or even today?

If it has no meaning, and you’re standing there in front of a stark black panel with stark white balls, slightly different sizes, going in two different motions at a certain slow-ish speed, what are you supposed to understand? Well, you’re supposed to have an experience, and some people will experience something deeper and something more significant than others.

You certainly grasp the ground-breaking nature of Calder’s work, but what about their ubiquity? Every mobile over every baby crib or lobby traces back to Calder.

Well, that irritated my grandfather. By the 1950s there were so many, literally a thousand people, making mobiles for hobby, for fun, and for commerce.... My grandfather was not happy about such things. He also had many people suggesting he should edition them. They said this is a beautiful mobile, let’s make 10 of them. Let’s make 100 of them. His attitude was it wouldn’t be the same. Because he didn’t believe that a piece of metal that had been crafted by his own hands would communicate the same thing as something manufactured. He was very clear about that.

Would you share your thoughts on “Parasite,” one of the most technically dazzling mobiles in the exhibition?

More than my thoughts, I’ll describe how it moves, because that really helps understand what’s going on.... I actually grew up with that sculpture. It was in our home when I was a child. Certain things happen that are unexpected. There’s a delicate spray of little red dots at the end at the extension of the sculpture that’s counterbalanced by a disk with a hole in it that’s white. That, in turn, counterbalances a disk that’s gray with a hole in it. It has a black base that comes up through that hole. One of the things that you can’t theorize when you’re looking at a picture of it, is that the black base is struck by the gray disk when it spins. As the mobile is spinning around and the gray element goes clunk against the black point of the base, it slows the gray but speeds up the rest of the mobile.

So, you would think that it would stop the motion, but it actually quickens the motion at the extension. It kind of takes the energy and throws it out in space. And then the white inclusion disk and the reds go faster and spin ever harder. When that happens, the red elements come in and get all kind of twisted up into the supporting black wire that runs between the gray disk and white disk, and so it gets sort of introverted. And then, eventually, as it continues to turn, it unwinds itself and extends itself again into a very extroverted external state. There are incredible psychological and emotional twists and turns going on in this sculpture as it spins around.

Is it fair to say you’re both guardian and guardian angel to your grandfather’s legacy?

No. I’m no angel. I have to be fierce, sometimes, in the abuse Calder’s legacy has suffered and continues to suffer. There are strange, strange claims against my grandfather’s intentions and wishes. I have to protect that. But guardian, definitely.

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