The Crab, 1962
Alexander Calder, American, 1898–1976
120 × 240 × 120 in. (304.8 × 609.6 × 304.8 cm)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Research public sculpture.
- Study how public institutions provide art for the community
Connecting to the Work of Art
This playful, sculpture by Alexander Calder, with its curving, pointed, long, and delicate legs, represents a crab. The work is made of steel and painted bright red. Calder called this kind of work a stabile, because unlike his famous mobiles, it stands still, and its parts are stable. While first ridiculed by the Houston press when acquired in 1962, The Crab has now become a signature work of art for the museum and the city.
Two large pieces of metal, placed at right angles, anchor The Crab, from which extend four long, slender, arching forms. The curving lines create a sense of movement and also recall the awkward, scuttling motion of a crab. They also define a negative space, the empty space in and around an object, which balances the more massive triangular area. The vivid red color lends a lively, playful air to the sculpture.
In discussing the fabrication process for his stabiles, stabiles, Calder said:
I make a little maquette [model] of sheet aluminum, about 50 cm [25 inches] high. With that I’m free to add a piece, or to make a cutout. As soon as I’m satisfied with the result I take the maquette to my Biemont [foundry] friends… and they enlarge the maquette as much as I want. When the enlargement is finished, provisionally, I go to add ribs and the gussets, or other things which I hadn’t thought of. After that they work out my ideas on the bracing. And that does it.¹
Alexander Calder was born into an artistic family. His mother was a painter and his father and grandfather were sculptors. At a very young age, Calder began making toys, small wire people and animals, and jewelry for his sister’s doll. His family encouraged his talent and helped him turn the basement of their home into a studio.
Calder completed a degree in mechanical engineering before studying at the Art Students League in New York. In the 1920s, while living in Paris, he began work on his famous Circus, a collection of wire, wood, and metal sculptures of animals and performers that Calder would bring to life in performances. In the Circus are the elements of motion and abstraction, the subject of animals, and a playful quality found in much of Calder’s art. He may be most famous for his mobiles, which he began creating in 1932, and for his stabiles, like The Crab, which are installed in public spaces in cities around the world.
- Jean Lipman, Calder’s Universe (New York: Viking Press in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), pp. 304-5.
Describe the different shapes in this sculpture. Are they geometric shapes? Why or why not?
Look at the artist’s use of lines in this sculpture. Describe lines: are they straight or curved? Horizontal, vertical or diagonal?
Without looking at the title, what do you think the sculpture represents?
The sculpture, with its curving, pointed, long, and delicate legs, represents a crab. The curving lines recall the awkward, scuttling motion of a crab. Point out other features of a crab that are reflected in this sculpture. Consider also its color.
Does this sculpture convey movement or stability, or both? Explain highlighting its different parts.
The empty space in and around an object balances its more massive triangular area. What effect does the size of the sculpture have on you (it is 120 x 240 x 120 in.)? Does its size relate to the subject of the work? Why (not)?
Negative space is the space around and between the subjects of an image. What does ‘negative space’ mean in the light of this artwork?
How might this have been made and what might it be made of?
The work is made of steel and painted bright red. The artist designed a maquette which was then enlarged and poured into a mold at a foundry. What other ways of making sculpture do you know?
Explain how the work changes when viewed three-dimensionally or two-dimensionally. Do you think a reproduction by way of a photograph adequately reflects the sculpture? Why or why not?
How does this work change when it is displayed outside as opposed to inside?
The artist of this sculpture completed a degree in mechanical engineering before studying at the Art Students League in New York. How does that show in this work?
Abstraction derives from abstracting an element of representation into something non-representational. Explain how the artist used abstraction here: what was the original element of representation and how did the artist re-work the representational elements?
The subject of a crab, or of animals in general, and the bright red color give the work a playful quality. How does this playfulness contrast with the sturdiness of the materials? Do you think the use of steel enhances the work? How would it be different if the artist had used another material?
This sculpture was ridiculed by the Houston press when the museum acquired it 1962, has now become a signature work of art for the museum and the city. Why do you think it was ridiculed? Think about its subject matter and materials. Can you think of other artworks that were disliked in the time in which they were made but gained recognition later?
In art history, there was often a distinction between ‘low art’ and ‘high art’, as concerns the materials of an artwork as well as its subject matter. Consider other examples of works that used industrial materials. Discuss whether you think there still is such a distinction in our times.
Discuss the concept of outdoor sculpture. List features of outdoor sculpture.
Discuss the term “maquette,” a small-scale model for a larger work.Why would an artist begin by working on a small scale? Read the quote by Calder in the “Connecting to the Work of Art” section. Discuss how his maquettes are translated into large-scale works.
Find photos and examples of public sculpture, preferably in your community.
Research who provides money for public art. How do cities or other groups decide which art to purchase? Discuss city planning, taxes, and laws that require 1% for art.
Have students imagine that the sculptures they created in the art lesson are maquettes for large public works.
Develop cost sheets for each, showing size and materials, and estimating construction time, installation time, and costs.
Have students review maquettes and select one to install in front of their school. Explain the reasons for the choice.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.