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Calder's Biggest Mobile

Alexander Calder takes a break from his creation, 1976. Photos: Gail Sachson

Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering lectures, tours and program planning. She is Vice-Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission and a member of the Public Art Committee. Join her at SMU Feb. 5  to celebrate the 55th anniversary of  the Continuing Education Program  (CAPE) and review  Dallas’ 55 most important cultural events, which will include the Calder exhibit, now at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Calder and Braniff

I snapped photographs madly in November of 1976, when Alexander Calder came to Dallas to supervise and put some personal paint touches on The Flying Colors of  the United States, the Braniff airplane painted with his abstract red, white and blue design to celebrate the Bicentennial. The final design, chosen from several  submitted by Calder, was decided upon by an illustrious National Selection Committee of Museum Directors, including Harry Parker, then Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in Fair Park.

Several of us were seated on the bleachers in Braniff’s Maintenance hanger at Love Field. “Sandy” Calder was high on a crane alongside the Boeing 727, brushing paint on the full-size plane, which would show only his name on the nose, with no reference to Braniff.  (Interestingly, my photos show Calder painting a fire breathing serpent on the side of the plane.  The  touch of humor must have been deemed inappropriate, for it appears to have vanished “into thin air” and  is nowhere to be seen on the full-size aircraft.) The plane was, indeed, to be  seen as high art.

When the Nasher Sculpture Center installed the fun and feisty traveling exhibit “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance and Joy,” (on view through March 6), I remembered that day 35 years ago and located the photographs and brochure. Braniff and the artist, it states, “wanted to lift America and its spirits right off the ground,” with sightings of the Bicentennial plane and with the seats filled with patriotic patrons feeling very special flying in the Calder plane. The small model of the final design, painted by Calder,  is on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, along with other Braniff memorabilia.

Alas, despite this colorful and creative marketing plan, the airline went bankrupt in 1982. But how clever of Braniff to recruit Calder, whom was touted as the “Father of Kinetic Art,” creator of the hanging mobile, to paint the largest flying mobile? How clever to choose Calder, who was trained in engineering and in love with the laws of balance, wind and structure as much as color and composition? And how clever to choose Calder, an artist who was intrigued by making art out of unusual materials, while surprising his audience by asking them to look up? Braniff just had to say, “Higher! Look up higher!”

Calder and Children

When I found the photographs, I felt as if I had uncovered a long forgotten and lost treasure, possibly not remembered or recorded by another. Then I googled Braniff/Calder.There were 47,500 results in .20 seconds. I obviously wasn’t alone in saving and savoring memories and mementos of Calder. (Braniffpages.com offers the most complete background of the Calder/Braniff relationship, in addition to sites selling posters and model airplanes.) But nowhere did I find duplicates of my photos, or my follow-up with the 4-5 year olds I was teaching all about Alexander Calder in our art appreciation classes at the Jewish Community Center.

Calder was a perfect artist for children to emulate and experience. What child wouldn’t love the grandfather figure with white hair, red flannel shirt and baggy pants – the grown-up child who made wire into art by playing with the pliers he always had in his pocket? He was a magician who wished colors could bounce and made motors so they did. He was a man who loved the circus and ignored the critics.

“Be Calder,” I said as I gave each child a balsa wood model airplane and red, white and blue paint. Soon, a half-dozen Calder inspired planes were flying across the classroom. If any of the children in that pre-school class, now about 40 years old, saved their airplanes, please contact me ASAP. There may be a place for you at the Nasher.

The budding Calders at the JCC.

  • http://www.the-mobile-factory.com unigami

    I really enjoyed your unique photos of this event and your wonderful article!

  • http://Www.bradfordsmith.us Brad Ford Smith

    I remember seeing his planes flying overhead on their way to and from Love Field Airport.