And so the MoMA retrospective wasn’t all that unusual, for this 20th-century artist. As implausible as it seems now, for decades it was standard practice for galleries and museums to encourage people to touch the Calder sculptures they had on view. “This unfettered access to the kinetic possibilities of Calder’s work was pretty much taken for granted,” Perl explains. “The artist was allowing his admirers to test the limits of traditional museum-going behavior, much as he had done with traditional three-dimensional art when he made sculpture move.”
A later retrospective at another New York City museum brought this mobile policy to a screeching halt, though. When Calder had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1964, record-breaking crowds showed up in droves and kids, in particular, played rough with the mobiles. By the end of the show, some sculptures were damaged.
One of the artist’s close friends, cartoonist Bob Osborn, visited the retrospective towards the end of its run and reported back to Calder. “It looks pretty worn,” Osborn wrote his friend in a letter. “Lionni’s piece was really twisted up & the guard said he couldn’t undo it.”