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What's the history of the Alexander Calder mobile that used to be in the airside terminal of the Pittsburgh International Airport? I heard it changed colors a few times. Why isn't it there anymore? Where did it go?

Question submitted by: Erica Brusselears, Mexican War Streets

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You know, I've heard Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey asking almost the same questions about US Airways: It's changed colors a few times, but why doesn't it want to be at the airport anymore? Where is it going?

 

So let me put your mind at ease first. Alexander Calder's mobile, called "Pittsburgh," is unlike US Airways in a couple of key respects. First, when it leaves town, you can be reasonably sure it's coming back. And second, the Calder mobile can travel overseas to someplace other than London.

 

The airport mobile is currently on loan to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The museum included the mobile in a retrospective exhibit of Calder's work, an exhibit that just ended in early October. We should be getting it back early next year -- assuming that the Spaniards are more trustworthy than, say, US Airways CEO David Siegel.

 

Frankly, though, such constancy may be more than Pittsburgh deserves. We've treated the sculpture rather shoddily since Calder, a Philadelphia native and one of the foremost American sculptors of the 20th century, exhibited the 28-by-28-foot sculpture in the 1958 Carnegie International.

 

Today, mobiles are practically clichés, things you hang over your infant's crib until he's old enough to start watching TV like a good citizen. But when Calder first began crafting his signature works in the 1930s, they were cutting-edge art: carefully balanced abstractions with spans of dozens of feet. Each consisted of a series of cut-metal petals joined by a carefully arranged network of connecting rods, creating works that were massive yet delicate.

 

To all appearances, Calder's black-and-white mobile of aluminum and iron -- two distinctly Pittsburgh metals -- was a huge success. "Pittsburgh" won the first prize for sculpture at the 1958 International, and it was purchased at the exhibition by one G. David Thompson. But like many a Philadelphia visitor, Calder found Pittsburghers to be irritatingly bumptious. In a 1969 interview with Art in America, he recalled being asked how long it took to build the mobile. Calder's response was "It took me thirty years," but as he told the magazine, "[T]hose dolts just looked at me and then walked away."

 

Before it was all said and done, Calder probably wished he'd walked away from the whole affair. Thompson donated his recently purchased mobile to Allegheny County, which installed it in the rotunda of the old airport. But as Vernon Gay and Marilyn Evert's Discovering Pittsburgh Sculpture puts it, county officials "thought it would be nice" if the mobile were painted in Allegheny County's colors of green and yellow. This was promptly done, with the result that "Pittsburgh" became one of the few works of cutting-edge art that perfectly matched the paint scheme on a municipal dump truck. But county officials also felt that part of the mobile hung too low, so they attached some weights on another part of the mobile to hoist it up. Problem solved ... except that the weights prevented the mobile from turning in the breeze the way it was supposed to. Engineers solved that problem by attaching a motor to the mobile to simulate the wind.

 

And yes, there's a metaphor for government problem solving in here somewhere, but it's just too damn easy.

 

At any rate, Calder was outraged to see his mobile immobilized, as it were. And he wasn't crazy about the government-issue paint job, either. He returned to Pittsburgh at the behest of the Carnegie's art museum director, and agreed on a compromise solution: "Pittsburgh" would be repainted in a bright shade known as "Calder Red." But the paint was so diluted it came out pink; not only was Calder still unhappy, but now the mobile clashed with the county's dump trucks. And in the fashion-conscious circles of county government, that is a definite no-no.

 

Finally, at the urging of a county art administrator named Carol Brown (who later became the head of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust), in 1979 county officials decided to reverse the mistakes of previous decades. The mobile was taken down, its color scheme carefully restored and the weights removed. "Pittsburgh" was returned for a few years to the same stairwell of the Carnegie Museum where it had first been displayed. And when the new county airport was opened in 1992, the Calder was restored in the new airside terminal, looking just as it did 34 years before.

 

In fact, the way things are going, Calder's artwork may be all the airport has left ... the one "mobile" that doesn't go anywhere. Unless, of course, county engineers figure out a way to drop it onto David Siegel's head.

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