Expansive Alexander Calder Exhibition Opens in Seattle

“Calder: In Motion” celebrates the iconic artist’s innovative mobiles, sculptures and other works

Red curly tail
The exhibition uses the Seattle Art Museum's double-height galleries to showcase works like the 22-foot-tall sculpture Red Curly Tail  (1970). © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Nicholas Shirley

Jon Shirley, the former president and chief operating officer of Microsoft, still remembers the first time he saw a work by sculptor Alexander Calder during a school field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“He took really simple elements—wire, steel, paint—and created a whole new art form,” Shirley tells the New York Times’ Tanya Mohn. “And all of a sudden, he created sculpture that was open, that moved and that was constantly changing. It just grabbed me.”

Calder’s art grabbed Shirley—and held on. Decades later, he has amassed an impressive collection of the artist’s work. Shirley and his wife, Kim, recently promised dozens of pieces to the Seattle Art Museum as part of a gift that funds a multi-year initiative of exhibition and outreach programs celebrating Calder’s life, legacy and work.

Kicking off the initiative is “Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection,” an exhibition showcasing more than 45 works by Calder. The show is “a unique opportunity to curate a concentrated view and in-depth study of one artist’s work,” says José Carlos Diaz, deputy director for art and exhibition curator, in a statement.

Gamma, a 1947 work by Alexander Calder in sheet metal, wire and paint Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York, © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“The inaugural exhibition highlights the dynamic and ever-changing qualities of Calder’s art. He was a pioneer of wire sculpture, the creator of the mobile and a true creative genius, gracefully employing industrial materials to redefine the notion of sculpture,” he adds. “We hope visitors will walk away with a greater appreciation for the artist and his work.”

Born into a family of artists in 1898, Calder trained as a mechanical engineer before turning to artistic endeavors, writes the Seattle Times’ Margo Vansynghel. He quickly found his playful style that innovatively incorporated movement with pieces like Calder’s Circus (1926–1931).

“Calder changed art history by making sculptures move, meaning his works take on different shapes depending on when the viewer sees the work, or how long they spend looking at it,” writes the Seattle Times. “It made him one of the most beloved, and some argue influential, artists of the past century.”

Visitors are welcomed to “Calder: In Motion” by the striking black sheet metal of Mountains (1976), a model for one of Calder’s final commissions before he died in 1976. It is juxtaposed with Femme Assise (1929), a small wooden work from early in Calder’s career.

Fish, a mobile from a series Calder created during and after World War II, when metal was scarce © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Nicholas Shirley

“Because of Jon Shirley’s meticulous collecting, we have representation of basically every type of work Calder did as a professional artist from the ’20s, all the way to his death in 1976,” Diaz tells the Times. “It helps us create one of the most important collections of the 20th century in Seattle.”

Many classic Calder works are on display in the museum’s double-height galleries, such as the 22-foot-tall sculpture Red Curly Tail (1970) or the sheet metal and wire of Gamma (1947). The Shirleys hope these and their other bequests will help bring new audiences to the Seattle Art Museum and contribute to the city’s cultural life, per the museum’s statement.

The exhibition also includes the rare work Fish (1942), a mobile from a series Calder created during and after World War II, when metal was scarce, according to the Seattle Art Museum. The intricate sculpture is crafted out of wire framing and found materials, including porcelain fragments and pieces of colored glass.

The show is expansive, even for those well-versed in the artist’s oeuvre. The pieces on view include mobiles, stabiles, paper works, oil painting and more.

Moon and Waves
Moon and Waves (1963), made with gouache and ink on paper, is one of several works demonstrating Calder's skills as a multidisciplinary artist. © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Nicholas Shirley

“[The show is] an introduction to Calder, but I think also the goal is to demonstrate what a multidisciplinary artist he was,” says Diaz to Forbes’ Chadd Scott. “When you think of artists today, artists are no longer just a photographer, just a painter, just a sculptor—and Calder wasn’t either.”

Calder leaves an important legacy, as Elizabeth Hutton Turner, an art historian at the University of Virginia, tells the Times.

“He develops a whole new way of thinking about movement and objects in motion and how the movement of his objects comes to sculpt the space. Calder wanted to make things more fun to look at,” says Turner. “He gives us a whole other perspective, a whole alternate way of seeing, and I think the world needs that.”

Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection” is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through August 4, 2024.

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