LACMA’s “Calder and Abstraction” ends with a few objects relating to the museum’s 1964 fountain-mobile, forerunner of the institution’s other large public art commissions. For decades the Calder has gone by the handle Hello Girls. It was commissioned by a women’s support at in the 1960s, a long-ago time when grown-up alpha females were called “girls.” Research for the Calder exhibition has has uncovered the work’s original and long-forgotten title: Three Quintains.
Obvious question: What’s a quintain?
It’s an medieval mobile, or more exactly a pain- and humiliation-inflicting device for training jousters. The most famous surviving quintain is the one in Kent, England. The print records its appearance in 1798. It’s not too different from how it looks in the 21st century (below).
A horseback competitor rides past the quintain and attempts to insert a lance through one of the holes on the left-hand paddle. Success sets the cross-arm spinning. The pail drenches the rider with water or, in earlier versions, a bag of sand smacked the rider in the head. A knight who rides away fast enough can just escape punishment. It’s your basic Jackass high concept. A quintain is a pinata that hits back and tries to bust your head open.
Calder was on a chivalry kick in the mid 1960s. At about the same time as the LACMA commission, he made the two stabiles of Jousters in the Stark collection at the Getty Center.
In the LACMA Three Quintains jets of water keep the mobile in motion. This fit in with the William Pereira conception of LACMA as a pseudo-modern, pseudo-Venetian palazzo rising up out of water. But Calder wasn’t crazy about the site he was given, and Three Quintains soon fell victim to the curse of the tar pits. Tar seeped into the water, and the mobile’s bearings proved inadequate to the constant rotation. Eventually the sculpture was moved onto dry land, where the blades kept getting caught in the landscaping. Exasperated conservators immobilized the mobile to prevent further damage.
The Calder went into storage, then on loan to Art Center College of Design. There was even talk of selling it. In 2009 the restored sculpture was reinstalled in a new fountain, complete with water jets, to the southeast of the Bing Theater. The out-of-the-way site is pleasant enough, but many of those visiting Urban Light or Levitated Mass probably don’t know there’s a major Calder mobile on campus.
The fountain element might seem a departure for Calder. Actually, he did a Water Ballet (1956) fountain for a General Motors building in Warren, Michigan. Two decades earlier is Calder’s most celebrated fountain, created for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris (where it was shown alongside Picasso’s Guernica). Mercury Fountain is just that, a pool of the toxic liquid metal surmounted by a classic mobile. Like Guernica, it was a protest against Fascism. Franco had been quick to seize Almadén’s profitable mercury mines.
The Caliphs of Islamic Spain contemplated their reflections in still pools of mercury and marveled at the funhouse distortions of quicksilver fountains. It’s said that one Caliph slept on a mercury bed. No one knew how toxic mercury vapor is.
One theory of Mozart’s death is that he was poisoned not by Salieri but by the groupies he loved too much. Mercury was an 18th-century remedy for sexually-transmitted diseases.
The Victorian coinage “mad as a hatter” refers to an occupational hazard we now credit to the use of mercury compounds in forming felt. The phrase lives on via Lewis Carroll and generations of filmmakers.
Today Calder’s Mercury Fountain is sealed behind glass at Barcelona’s Miró Museum. For the al fresco Calder fountain experience, you’ll have to try LACMA. By the way—a whiff of tar in the air won’t bother you, right?