Collecting 20th-century mobile art

Playful, dynamic and intriguing, mobiles by 20th-century masters are on the radar of big-name gallerists and canny collectors alike, says Virginia Blackburn

Landscape Mobile, 1991, by Roy Lichtenstein, price on request, from DTR Modern Galleries
Landscape Mobile, 1991, by Roy Lichtenstein, price on request, from DTR Modern Galleries | Image: Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2017

The interest in mobile art in recent years has gone through the ceiling – appropriate, many would say, as that is where most mobile artworks tend to be displayed. Particular interest has focused on the art form’s progenitor, the American artist Alexander Calder. This year, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has been hosting an exhibition entitled Calder: Hypermobility. This follows on from another 18 months ago at Tate Modern, Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture. Pace Gallery and Acquavella Galleries have recently shown Calder: Constellations and Miró: Constellations respectively in New York, and published a book on the exhibitions. And as for the prices mobiles command: earlier this year, Sotheby’s sold a rare and unusual black monochrome Calder, Black Lace, for over £5.2m, while other Calder lots offered by the auction house have achieved prices ranging from just over $200,000 to $8.3m – and look set to continue rising.

Untitled hanging mobile, c1958, by Ruth Asawa, sold for $996,500 at Sotheby’s
Untitled hanging mobile, c1958, by Ruth Asawa, sold for $996,500 at Sotheby’s

Mobiles are among the more unusual art forms, in that they appeal to the viewer’s sense of whimsy as much as anything else. Melinda Lang of the Whitney Museum of American Art says, “There is irreverence in many of the works, and the vocabulary is unique. There is a joyful element to them, and sometimes a surprising one as well, such as, for example, a sound. That unpredictability creates a hidden anticipation when viewing the work.”

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Calder is one of the great figures of American 20th-century art, an innovator who essentially created a new art form. “Though known mostly for his mobiles, Calder reached great heights as an artist,” says Ted Vassilev of the US-based, multi‑location DTR Modern Galleries, which has a Lichtenstein mobile for sale (of which more below). “First and foremost as a sculptor, Calder is in the ranks of Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brâncusi.” Where Calder led, others followed. According to Vassilev, those that are currently highly collectable include the American Ruth Asawa and the Argentinian Julio Le Parc. A work by Asawa sold at Sotheby’s in New York for just under $1m earlier this year, nearly twice its estimate. Julio Le Parc has a lower entry level, but is still sought after; such is his growing reputation that the 2017 Brussels-based BRAFA art fair paid homage to him in the form of four works at strategic parts of the event, while another major work, Quantitative sequences, dating from 1991, was presented by La Patinoire Royale for €450,000.

Black Lace, c1947, by Alexander Calder, sold for over £5.2m at Sotheby’s
Black Lace, c1947, by Alexander Calder, sold for over £5.2m at Sotheby’s | Image: 2017 Calder Foundation, New York/DACS London

Mobiles were actually given their name by Marcel Duchamp in 1931. They are often suspended entirely from the ceiling, or else from a solid structure set on the ground; or sometimes, in the case of smaller works, on a tabletop. Calder was heavily influenced by Piet Mondrian, among others of the period, which manifests in the bright palette of many of his mobiles: Tres Puntos Blancos Sobre Rojo, Amarillo Y Azul, one of the aforementioned major Sotheby’s lots, sold for just over £580,000. A slightly different type of mobile, by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, was also recently sold by the auction house for £356,750; Blanc – Blanc + Ombre, which dates from 1955, consists of painted metal elements on a painted wooden box with wooden pulleys, rubber belt, metal fixtures and electric motor.

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Mobiles are by their very nature playful structures, so it’s no surprise that other artists took up the concept and gave it their own whimsical twists. Roy Lichtenstein was one of these: “His mobiles don’t actually move,” says Stefan Ratibor of Gagosian. “His pieces are like the frieze of a mobile, and the humour derives from that.” DTR currently has his Landscape Mobile (price on request), dating from 1991.

Interest in the field looks set to remain strong – understandable, given that mobiles are playful, intriguing, dynamic and provide endless visual pleasure. Who could ask for more from an artwork? 

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