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How do you rehang a massive Alexander Calder mobile? Very carefully.

The National Gallery of Art reassembled a massive Alexander Calder mobile in the East Building after a two-year absence (Video: National Gallery of Art)

On Wednesday morning in the atrium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, three people clutching long slender ropes looked as if they were trying to keep a zeppelin from blowing away in the wind. They sort of were.

They were part of a crew of nearly 20 who had been on hand since 6 a.m. to reassemble the gallery’s massive Alexander Calder mobile and raise it — after a two-year absence — in the airy, light-filled space. It was the job of the rope holders to keep the mobile from spinning too soon and bashing into the mezzanine.

Other workers stood next to weights that counterbalanced the arms of the mobile. Some used cloths to give one last dusting to the baby-pool-size blades of the hanging sculpture, or carted blades across the atrium to position them for the next step. They looked like ants pushing Day-Glo Doritos.

Calder designed the colorful mobile specifically for the space, where it seems to float above the stone floors, as captivating as a toy above a baby’s crib. When it’s complete, the mobile sits in perfect equipoise. But so far, the mobile was far from complete.

A red rod hung down from the skylighted ceiling. Attached to that was a long red crossbar. Attached to one end of the red crossbar was a black crossbar. From one end of that black crossbar dangled five black, horizontal chevrons — imagine a flock of geese.

Those five geese were in balance with a black lozenge and a blue lozenge at the other end of the crossbar. And at the other end of the long red crossbar was … nothing. It was awaiting six red blades that would make everything balance.

And that’s why everyone had to be so attentive.

“It’s a very choreographed and complex process,” said Katy May, the gallery art conservator who was overseeing the reinstallation.

“It’s not like you’re building something with Tinkertoys. Every bit has to be weighted and counterbalanced,” said Shelley Sturman, the art conservator who headed the gallery team that refurbished the mobile the last time around. Sturman postponed her retirement — after 41 years at the gallery — so she could be around to work on the Calder mobile again. This was the third time it had come down, after renovations in 1988 and again in 2004. She’ll retire Friday, going out, her daughter said, not with a bang but with a hang.

May and Sturman consulted a 13-page document outlining every step of the reinstallation. That document was prepared by the man who built the mobile, a friend of Calder’s named Paul Matisse.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the grandson of artist Henri Matisse. He’s an artist in his own right, and someone who was able to take Calder’s design and make it work. Changing the material from steel to aluminum was one enhancement, reducing the mobile’s weight to a mere 920 pounds. And while Calder thought the mobile would need a motor to turn, the final product spins on the currents of air that waft through the atrium.

But spinning is not what anyone wanted just now. Outside, on the roof, workers were at a winch. When given the command, they would very slowly hand-winch the entire mobile up, making room for the next part to be slipped on.

The very last red piece looked like a Pop Art kayak paddle. May and Sturman each took an end in their gloved hands and carried it to the crossbar, where it was looped in place.

Up went the mobile, an inch at a time. The six red blades were kept from hitting the perilously close mezzanine wall by workers wielding long sticks, padded at one end like giant Q-tips.

Higher and higher the mobile went, until it cleared the mezzanine, and the ropes were slipped off. Raised to the ceiling, the mobile instantly caught a thermal of air and started to move, like a rehabilitated raptor freed from its cage. It spun slowly counterclockwise.

“Look at that. Look at that,” said Sturman. “It’s terrific. The atrium looks filled now.”