The Immobilized Men of Montreal: Alexander Calder’s Man, Three Disks and Randall Anderson’s Zoom!

Rosie Prata

Both opponents and proponents of public art assert their positions using democracy as their means of defence.  Opponents criticise public sculptural installations of stealing space away from the people, while proponents advocate their instatement and herald the pieces as triumphs of free expression [1]. What can clearly be conferred from both sides of the argument is that citizens prize their public arena, which by belonging to no one in particular also belongs partly to each individual. There is scarcely a better subject to appease the masses than a representation of what is held most dear to them: their own image.

Public art installations have taken on a defining role in the urban landscape, and, for some of the populace, interactions with these works are their first contact with art [2]. Often, they are the predominant mode of public artistic interaction, increasing their significant role. Two distinctive yet similar sculptures centred on the plight of the modern man currently occupying permanent positions in the Montreal milieu are Alexander Calder’s Man, Three Disks (1967), located on Île Sainte-Hélène (Figure 1), and Randall Anderson’s Zoom! (2006), situated at the heart of Montreal’s downtown on Sainte Catherine Street (Figure 2). Calder’s gargantuan and abstract sculpture dwarfs Anderson’s more recognisably human figure, but both speak to Montreal’s bustling public, each relaying a unique message in their own equally booming voices.

Man, Three Disks, commissioned by the International Nickel Company of Canada, (INCO), was inaugurated in 1967 during the World’s Fair in Montreal. Unlike the rest of Calder’s large sculptures, Man, Three Disks is not painted and this serves to expose its constructional elements. Echoing the manufacturing techniques of massive machines such as planes or boats with its stainless steel plates fused together with bolts, the monolithic figure stands at over 20 metres tall, stretching 22 metres from end to end in one direction, and reaching just over 16 metres in the other. The market value of this work of art, estimated at 50 million dollars, is the highest in Canada. Due to its name and monumental qualities, this work was renowned as one of the major symbols of the World’s Fair [3].

Calder, born in America in 1898, is recognised as one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century, whose whimsy and innovative techniques revolutionised the language of sculpture. He is credited with the invention of mobiles as an art form, and is consequently considered among the forerunners of kinetic artists. He was very much concerned with the expression of free and uncontrolled movement. His mimicry of boat and plane production in his immobile Montreal sculpture was perhaps an effort to loan a referential sense of movement to the work. To differentiate his static sculptures from his mobile ones, Calder coined the term “stabile”, of which Man, Three Disks is the largest and most formidable [4]. Approximately twenty of his stabiles are located in many large cities around the world [5], particularly in North America, where an abundance of large open spaces beg to be the home for one of Calder’s graceful and stately Titans.

Most of Calder’s large free standing stabiles are found in the urban sectors of the city they call home, unlike in Montreal, where Man, Three Disks reclines against a backdrop of leafy green trees. Calder’s success in acquiring so many large scale commissions lies in the fact that his sculptures are sufficiently „modern‟ enough to incur praise from art lovers, yet not so radical as to anger more traditional types or to look outmoded within a couple of decades [6]. The reason why the majority of the population so tenderly embraces Calder’s sculptures is because the primary objectives of the pieces are to encourage child’s play, to ignite the imagination, and to delight people with their unexpected animal-inspired shapes. His stabiles give poorly designed stark public spaces a human touch. The arching forms, dynamic surfaces and biomorphic imagery of Calder’s stabiles are so often coupled with the geometric, rigid and severe architecture of office buildings because they provide the perfect formal complement [7].

His sculptures impress upon the populace a different, yet no less effective, impact when they are implanted in the more green, wide-open context of a public park, as Man, Three Disks is. A Calder colossus positioned on any public square changes the character of the outdoor space for all who walk through it [8].

Like most of Calder’s work, Man, Three Disks has an implied lyrical and humorous movement to it [9]. With its arching lines and graceful abstract shapes, the stabile exemplifies defined volume without mass and incorporates feelings of movement and temporality into the piece. Man, Three Disks’ catapulted limbs play with notions of space and balance, harmoniously enfolding and incorporating spatial volume, as if Calder were painting shapes from the ground against the canvas of the sky. With these feelings being evoked upon viewing the sculpture, it is no wonder that Man, Three Disks has now become synonymous with the annual Montreal summer music festival, Piknic Électronik. People congregate beneath the sculpture, which is emblematically incorporated into the advertising of the event, to dance, eat, and play music. Calder would have been ecstatic to learn that his sculpture was being used in this way, as his principal aim was for his artwork to make people laugh and be happy.

Calder’s sculptures emanate a sensation of gleeful absurdity, echoing the artist’s own perception of the world [10]. His sculptures, like fantastical creatures escaped from a zoo in Plato’s world of Forms and frozen in movement once confronted with reality on Earth, serve to unite disparate elements of the environment to create friendly and positive experiences for the citizens of its adoptive home. Man, Three Disks is appropriately placed on Île Sainte-Hélène because, while its stark steel frame initially appears to conflict with the lush foliage surrounding it, its organic form, complemented by the giant orb that is Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere (1967) sharing its horizon, in fact blends in with the environment and creates a dreamscape vision in the park. While other Calder stabiles are easier to identify with their titles, such as Flamingo (1974) or Mountains and Clouds (1976), Man, Three Disks is harder to recognise. For one thing, he has too many limbs to be human. What can be confidently ascertained, despite this, is that this is a figure locked in exuberant motion, limbs joyfully flailing with such vigour that they appear to be multiplied. Were this statue to come to life, he would find himself right at home, in a beautiful park surrounded by joy, people dancing and energetic music.

Locked in a position of frustrated turmoil, conversely, is Randall Anderson’s Zoom!. Although he stands at only a slightly larger than life 2.3 metres, and clearly resembles a human figure with the appropriate amount of limbs, Anderson’s man is still abstracted. Recalling Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), which is a distorted form in forward movement who is hindered by the space around him fusing with his appendages, Zoom! is encumbered by what seems to be many pieces of loose paper creating a cast of his body. Once the viewer walks to the other side of the sculpture, it is made shockingly obvious that the cast is merely a hollow shell.

Randall Anderson is a multi-disciplinary artist living in Montreal. He obtained two degrees from Concordia University, where the artwork is now appropriately housed, as Zoom! was the winner of the first Faculty of Fine Arts graduate sculpture competition.[11] Burdened with papers, his position outside the university is humorously apt. Like Calder, Anderson is fixated on movement. However, while Calder’s interpretation of modern man in movement is of limbs akimbo in exalted bounds, Anderson’s shows man struggling but persevering in forward momentum. Paradoxically, he both collides and coheres with his environment, fighting against the floating debris characteristic of urban sprawl, yet is also entirely composed of it. The location of the work could not be more fitting. Nestled in a nook littered with the scattered detritus of modern life just off of Montreal’s busiest street, Zoom! calls to attention the struggle that all city dwellers face daily. The sculpture is noticeable because it sticks out against its surroundings. Its fluid shape contrasts with the straight lines of the building that shelters it, and its static immobility is the comic antithesis to the movement of people that constantly surround it. Unlike Calder’s creature, Zoom!’s interaction with the world is one of violent confrontation. Anderson’s perception of modern man’s troubles is both pessimistic and realistic. It has been suggested that the rectangular shapes impeding the figure’s movement could represent the anxious concerns of its neighbours: to the office worker, they might recall the endless bureaucracy constantly looming over his head; to the shopper, they might appear as the ideological and commercial demands of the city;[12] to the rest, they may see the paper-like shapes as indicative of the rushing rapids of information, entertainment and advertisements that are so readily available as to barrage the soul. Zoom! is a comrade with whose condition and distress the citizens are in alliance. As Anderson states, “in the face of the contemporary onslaught of information, Zoom! is the instant of change where the body is only the echo of what once was” [13].

Monumental sculpture has been touted as the symbol of and stimulus for urban revitalization [14]. Montreal has made a commitment to the monument in the contemporary urban landscape, showing the city’s dedication to the cultural welfare of its compatriots [15]. Of the city‟s public art collection, comprised of about 300 works, many directly resemble human forms while others recall them abstractly, underlining the Montrealer‟s demand for kinship between viewer and art. Although they use abstract imagery rather than historical or allegorical figures, the sculptures equal the heroic grandeur [16] present in the more traditional works, and the contemporary pieces are arguably less intimidating and more approachable than their forebears. Both Zoom! and Man, Three Disks  represent de-individualized and de-materialized human figures [17], but in different ways. While Man, Three Disks loses identity and materiality through abstraction, Zoom! is literally a hollow and anonymous human form. The ability of sculptures to functionas surrogates for human beings, replete with consciousness and interiority, is limited [18]. Man, Three Disks and Zoom! accept their limitations and work within the boundaries of their medium. The theme of movement is essential to each piece, and this is because, following in the great tradition of sculpture where meaning was imbued through gesture and pose, illusions of movement convey a state of mind or emotion [19]. Based purely on witnessed interaction, it is not wrong to assume that people identify much more with contemporary examples of public art, such as the two sculptures in question, than they do with conventional traditional sculptures, such as Marshall Wood’s Monument à la reine Victoria (1872), also located in Montreal. This is perhaps because the neoteric sculptures speak to more pressing concerns of the city dweller and emulate prevailing attitudes. Zoom! represents the anxiety of the urban resident, caught up in the daily grind of city life, while Man, Three Disks, is representative of those who embrace the fun parts of life and to ignore the serious. Together, they symbolise the two sides of the typical Montreal resident’s personality. It has been said that sculpture, more than any other art, “vivifies and clarifies our spatial withness with things, thus making our belonging in a world more sensitive, informed, and explicitly valuable” [20]. Together, these sculptures echo this sentiment by acting as perfect metaphors for the multilayered nature of urban life.

1. Rosalyn Deutsche, “Agoraphobia,” Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press, 1998,  p. 140.
2. “Public Art in Montréal,” © Ville de Montréal. Online.
3. “Alexander Calder: Man, Three Disks,” © Ville de Montréal. Online.
4. Joan M.Marter, Alexander Calder: Ambitious Young Sculptor of the 1930s. Archives of American Art Journal © 1976 The Smithsonian Institution.
5. “Public Art in Montréal”
6. Joan M. Marter, Alexander Calder’s Stabiles: Monumental Public Sculpture in America. American Art Journal © 1979 Kennedy Galleries, Inc.
7. Marter
8. Marter
9. John Wetenhall, Review: Alexander Calder, The Journal of American History © 1993 Organization of American Historians.
10. L. Joy Sperling, Calder in Paris: The Circus and Surrealism. Archives of American Art Journal © 1988 The Smithsonian Institution.
11. “Randall Anderson – Zoom!” Concordia Public Art Collection. Online.
12. Johanne Sloan, Text about Randall Anderson’s Zoom! Sculpture. Randall Anderson Website. Online.
13. “Randall Anderson – Zoom!”
14. Marter
15. Marter
16. Marter
17. Sloan
18. Sloan
19. Sloan
20. F. David Martin, Sculpture and “Truth to Things,” Journal of Aesthetic Education © 1979 University of Illinois Press.