May 5, 1987
The monumental sculpture, entitled Mountains and Clouds, occupies the nine-story atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Rising 51 feet, the mountains are formed from 36 tons of sheet steel painted black. Suspended above this stabile was a 75-foot-wide black mobile, representing clouds. Constructed of aircraft aluminum, the mobile was designed to rotate in random patterns set by a computer-controlled motor.
In 1975, months before construction of the Hart Building began, Capitol officials invited five sculptors to submit designs for a work that would harmonize with the atrium’s surrounding white marble architecture and yet stand apart from the cluttering distraction of adjacent doors, windows, and balconies. In April 1976, 77-year-old Alexander Calder won the design commission. Forty years earlier, Calder had invented the mobile and stabile as art forms. Although Calder had previously designed a mobile attached to a stabile, this was his first—and only—work to place them as separate units within a single sculptural composition.
On November 10, 1976, Calder presented a scaled model to congressional officials and the building’s architect. To accommodate their comments, he made several on-the-spot adjustments with a borrowed pair of pliers and metal shears. Leaving all parties happy with his final design, Calder returned to New York City, where, later that evening, he died.
In 1979, midway through the building’s construction, severe cost overruns led Congress to eliminate funding for Calder’s sculpture. When the building opened in 1982, its empty atrium appeared depressingly barren. To fill that void, former New Jersey senator Nicholas Brady organized the Capitol Art Foundation, which raised $650,000 to pay for Calder’s work and its installation. A team of fabricators devoted more than a year to assembling the clouds.
In March 1986, the clouds rose to the heavens of the atrium, and construction of the mountains by another firm proceeded quickly. The Senate dedicated Mountains and Clouds on May 5, 1987.
Nearly 30 years later, in 2016, the clouds disappeared, removed after a structural safety analysis indicated potential problems. The cloud mobile will be refabricated and reinstalled as funding becomes available. Meanwhile, the mountains remain--beneath a cloudless sky.
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U.S. Congress. Senate. United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art, by William Kloss and Diane K. Skvarla. 107th Congress, 2d sess., 2002. S. Doc. 107-11.