Books Book Reviews

'Calder' clearly establishes its subject as a giant of the 20th century

Up until now, there has never been a full-scale biography to help us understand and appreciate Calder's accomplishments.

Calder By Jed Perl Knopf Doubleday 704 pp.
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  • Terry Hartle

Alexander “Sandy” Calder is one of the best-known artists of the 20th century. His giant sculptures are immediately recognizable.  Even people with little interest in art usually recognize a “Calder” when they see it. His works are approachable, ingenious, whimsical, and even lyrical. This is not art that puzzles or demands sustained concentration. People looking at Calder’s art are often smiling – again, not a typical reaction to most modern art.

But Calder is often an afterthought in art history. His work is so unique that it’s hard to categorize him. He was regarded as a founding member of the Dadaist movement, an intimate of the Surrealists, but he never regarded himself as part of either group.  Piet Mondrian was the inspiration for his move to abstraction, his friend Marcel Duchamp suggested the name “mobiles” for the sculptural works that moved, and another friend, Jan Arp, proposed the name “stabiles” for those that did not. He was particularly close to Jean Miro, Fernand Léger, Jean Hélion, and Isamu Noguchi. He was equally admired in American avant-garde circles but, again, he was sui generis.   

Calder is also overlooked because there has never been a full-scale biography to help us understand and appreciate his accomplishments. Calder and his wife Louisa (who plays a central role in his life and career) let a friend begin a biography in the 1950s but, dismayed by the early results, backed out of the project. Aware of this, Calder’s descendants generally viewed biographers with suspicion. Fortunately, with the agreement of the Calder Foundation, Jed Perl, one of America’s most insightful and thoughtful art critics, has written a comprehensive and marvelous biography that clearly establishes Calder as one of the artistic giants of the 20th century. A gifted writer and a meticulous researcher, Perl’s rich prose brings Calder alive, both as an artist and person. The book is certain to be required reading for anyone with an interest in modern art.  

Calder came to art naturally – his grandfather and father were successful sculptors and his mother was a fine painter. As a child, the family moved frequently and Perl draws clear connections between his boyhood experiences and his artistic interests. For example, when the family lived in Pasadena, Calif., his parents were involved with the Arts and Crafts movement and Perl shows that the manipulation of simple forms and materials that was at the heart of this movement is seen in Calder’s lifelong mastery working with wire, wood, and metal. Later, when Calder’s father became the director of sculpture projects for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, the family moved to San Francisco. This experience exposed Calder to large-scale public sculpture and modern European art and deepened his lifelong interest in machinery.   

Fascination with machinery led Calder to study engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. But he never found his niche as an engineer: after 15 jobs in four years, he decided to become an artist. He enrolled at the Art Students League, where he was “stronger willed, more mature, more determined to succeed” than most of his fellow students. From the start, Calder was fascinated by the spectacle of the modern city: street scenes, prize fights, the theater, tennis matches, and the circus. He was particularly fascinated by animals and began to produce images of them in ink, paint, wood, and wire.  

In 1926, he moved to Paris to expand his artistic horizons and made a miniature circus that was composed of little figures and animals made from wire, cork, rubber and fabric. Acting as the ringmaster, he put on exhibitions of what became known as “Cirque Calder.” This “strange and marvelous spectacle” fascinated Parisian artists and intellectuals and brought the young artist much acclaim.  

Next Calder began making animals and figures solely out of wire and, for the rest of his life, this medium would be an essential element of his art. These creations were an extraordinary departure in sculpture: for the first time, mass and solidity were replaced by the use of wire to define space. Before long, he was known as “the wire king” in Parisian art circles.

Calder’s artistic life changed dramatically in October 1930 when he visited Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio and was overwhelmed by the power of the Dutch artist’s rectangular paintings in primary colors. Later, Calder would remember thinking, “It would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate.” This visit became the inspiration for Calder’s mobiles and, at age 32, he began to work in the abstract. Of course, Calder would not be limited to rectangles, nor would he limit the colors in his palette like Mondrian had done. But the direction of his art was fixed. A year later, Calder would first exhibit the mobiles, an event Perl labels “the beginning of a one-man artistic revolution.” With this exhibition, “movement was taking the decisive role in his art” and it was to remain so for the rest of his life.

At about the same time, Calder married Louisa James (a relative of the writer Henry James and the philosopher William James), a match that provided financial and emotional support for the rest of his life. In the 1930s, Sandy and Louisa established their primary home in Roxbury, Conn. But long before it was commonplace to talk of a global art market, the Calders would divide their time between America and France. 

By the middle of the decade, Calder’s reputation had reached the point where he was a “heroic figure.” He continued to experiment with new artistic activities and even flirted – unsuccessfully – with ballet and theatre. By the end of the decade, Calder was at an artistic peak: he participated in two major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had enjoyed a major exhibition in London. He designed the Mercury Fountain for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris where it shared top billing with Picasso’s legendary “Guernica” and Miro’s “The Reaper.” In 1938, he enjoyed his first retrospective in America. In 1940 and 1941, he had exhibitions at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in which he demonstrated “a new force and lucidity” in his work.  

Calder’s increasing success and recognition was accompanied by the rapidly deteriorating international situation as Europe prepared to fall into the abyss of World War II.  And it is at this point – just as Calder enters his early 40s – that this important, rich and engrossing book ends. There is a second volume to come and it will be eagerly and deservedly anticipated.   

Calder’s works are so well-known that it’s easy to take them for granted and to overlook their importance in art history. Thanks to Perl’s superb book, Calder’s ubiquitous mobiles and stabiles will soon be regarded with far more insight, understanding, and appreciation than ever before.      

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