Alexander Calder upended the seriousness of art

His sculpture and mobiles played with space and form, but some critics were not amused. Part 2 of Jed Perl’s biography illumines Calder’s skill.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976” by Jed Perl, Alfred A. Knopf, 688 pp.

The bright colors and biomorphic forms of Alexander Calder’s sculpture and mobiles are instantly recognizable. Parks and plazas everywhere bloom with his public commissions, and his work is found in museums all over the world. He is easily one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. 

But for all his visibility, Calder is not fully credited as a major artist. The mere fact of his popularity has turned off many art critics, with the exception of Jed Perl, who has taken up the monumental task of producing a two-volume biography of Calder. The first, “Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940,” was published in 2017. Now, the follow-up, “Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976,” has been released.

Having established Calder’s background in the first volume, this book opens during World War II when Calder and his wife, Louisa, were living in Roxbury, Connecticut, where their home was a popular gathering place for many of the European modernists who had fled to America. This was natural because Calder and his wife had lived in Paris and were close friends with many of the refugees.

By this time, Calder was already an established artist. In 1943, the Museum of Modern Art gave him a retrospective, the first American abstract artist to receive such a tribute. 

Perl’s narrative makes Calder come alive. The artist was an ebullient, funny, and fun-loving man who made friends easily and kept them. He liked to dance, travel, and go to parties. A friend said, “Calder is so devoted to friends, so gregarious, that when he goes from the first to the third floor [in an elevator] he wants company for the ride.” Unlike some of the abstract expressionists with whom he overlaps, Calder was neither tortured nor misogynistic Rather he was an “imperturbable optimist.” He was married to his wife until the day he died. He was a devoted father and a doting grandparent.

Perl is a gifted writer and he tells the story with obvious affection for the artist. He seems to have seen every work that Calder made and writes about them with verve and insight. The sections about Calder creating sets for theater and ballet productions, along with his entertaining illustrated books, provide a full portrait of the artist and reveal Calder’s great gifts. Perl also addresses Calder’s skills as a draftsman and printmaker – two aspects of his oeuvre that are easily overlooked.

Calder’s very popularity worked against his artistic reputation. “I want to make things that are fun to look at, that have no propaganda value whatsoever,” Calder told one interviewer. 

He told a reporter, “There is no idea I want to express – no meaning. ... What I have tried to do is just create something interesting to look at.” In Perl’s words, Calder was celebrating “artistic escapism. ... Elation was a philosophical principle.” 

This notion of “fun to look at” led Calder to take on projects that were easy for the critics to dismiss. So when he was asked to paint a commercial airliner for Braniff he responded, “I’d like to see my colors flying in the sky. A jet? I’d like that.” The pop artists were doing similar things, but unlike them, Calder’s work had no irony or social criticism behind it. The critics pounced and Calder’s standing in art history has arguably suffered as a result.

One perceptive critic writing about Calder’s 1976 retrospective at the Whitney Museum noted that Calder’s art “is so much fun, it so easily seduces the eye and so shamelessly charms the mind, that it is just possible ... for the casual or inattentive viewer to miss something important: the fact that Calder is a major figure in the history of modernist sculpture. ... His great distinction ... was to introduce an element of wit into the solemnities of Constructivist art at the same time that he literally set it in motion.”

Unlike the other major artists of the 20th century, Calder has never had a comprehensive biography that set his life and work in context. Thanks to Jed Perl’s magisterial work, now he does.

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