After earning a degree in mechanical engineering, Alexander Calder studied under John Sloan at the Art Students League in
New York in the early 1920s. From 1926 to 1930, he lived in Paris, where he developed lifelong friendships with the artists Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian.
After visiting Mondrian’s studio in 1930, Calder began to explore abstraction, which, in combination with his previous experimentation in wire sculpture with movable parts, led him to the invention of mobiles. Mobiles are kinetic sculptures—originally hand-cranked or motorized, later able to move as a result of the slightest current of air. Using the principle of balance with simple wire and brightly painted sheet metal cut into shapes, Calder introduced lightness and openness to sculpture’s traditional concern for mass and volume.
The Great Speed is a stabile, one of Calder’s abstract, usually steel sculptures that rest firmly on the ground rather than dangling in space as the mobiles do. The Nasher Museum’s version of this work is a reduction of a monumental, forty-three-foot-tall sculpture located in the downtown civic center of Grand Rapids, Michigan; the title is a play on the name of that city.
Commissioned in 1967, the original was the first public sculpture funded by the National Endowment for the Arts’ public art program. Nancy Hanks ’49, the second NEA chairman, ordered two smaller versions of the sculpture. One she bequeathed to the Nasher Museum; the other she gave to the NEA.
Painted Calder’s signature Signcraft red, The Great Speed is currently on view at the Nasher, together with a mobile on loan from a private collector. See more of Calder’s work alongside work by contemporary artists who have looked to and built on Calder’s aesthetics in “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy,” opening at the Nasher on February 16, 2012.