What comes to mind when you hear the word “sculpture”? Perhaps a stone bust of a Greek God. A statue dedicated to a historical figure. Maybe an abstract shape with complex meaning. 

You certainly don’t think of mobiles, although that’s exactly what you find at the SFMOMA’s Elemental Calder exhibit. Located in a gallery on the third floor, you find yourself surrounded by a vast collection of Alexander Calder’s sculptural work. Enormous mobiles and stabiles that depict the four elements – earth, fire, water and air.    

Immediately, you’re drawn to 23 feuilles à l’écart (23 Spreading Leaves, 1945). It’s a large metal sculpture comprised of many mobiles. The triangular parts move slowly, independently, some in opposing directions. The piece is painted black, so it surprises you how intensely you can see leaves blowing in the wind. It’s a vibrant scene that reminds you of autumn and jumping into a pile of freshly raked leaves. 

The mood shifts when you move on to Aquarium (1929). It’s a small and stagnant sculpture, just a thin wire twisted into loose shapes, yet you detect motion. You visualize a goldfish swimming in bowl of clear blue water. The fish’s movement causes the sea grass to undulate along the bottom of the bowl, rolling with the soft ripples.  

It’s curious that solid metal pieces can conjure up imagery of unseen forces. You linger over each work of art, absorbing its story about the natural world. It’s a feeling that stays with you as you walk through Yerba Buena Gardens. With heightened senses, you notice how the grass tickles your ankles, the flowers tilt up toward the sun, and the winds ruffles up the bushes. It’s a pleasant perspective that instills you with gratitude.

As you enter the lobby of your building, you pause for a moment to admire the intricate details. You find pleasure in the motion of the rising elevator. And, opening up your front door, you relish in the familiar. It’s not a mobile, but a sculptural work of art in its own right with movement and color and unseen forces. A living, breathing masterpiece.  

Outside cover photo: Alexander Calder, Moths II, 1948 (installation view, SFMOMA); The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel 

Inside Cover photo: Alexander Calder, Aquarium, 1929; The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel