he great American sculptor Alexander Calder seems to be one of those rare artists with no juvenilia, no youthful artistic indiscretions to regret. His earliest work—a pair of comic animals that he folded from a sheet of brass when he was 11—is as whimsically expressive as anything he did as an adult. But to read Jed Perl’s ambitious Calder: The Conquest of Time, the first installment of a two-volume biography, is to wonder if his work was all juvenilia. The Calder he portrays is someone who never quite grew up. As a child he learned to make goofy drawings and whimsical objects—and never stopped. The doodles and the objects simply became larger, more permanent, eventually monumental. It is significant that his most enduring creation is that fixture of infancy, the twirling mobile that hung suspended over our collective crib.
The Calder who emerges here is a cheerfully unintellectual figure for whom the art world was a pleasantly diverting place where he could tinker to his heart’s content. He could befriend Jean-Paul Sartre without evincing any great curiosity about his philosophy. Perl tells a characteristic story in which the playwright Arthur Miller, another old friend (and Calder’s friends are a who’s who of 20th-century arts and letters), once excitedly declared that he had figured out the meaning of Calder’s mobiles. Their cold wires and sheet metal refracted “the same elemental and paradoxical forces in physics and human relations.” Hearing this, Calder looked up from his anvil and grunted, “Ercaberk.” (Evidently this was Calder’s shorthand for pretentious nonsense.)
This literate and beautifully illustrated book does precisely what the definitive biography of an artist is supposed to do: tell the life in a way that lets us see the work more fully and richly. Perl is a perceptive critic of Calder’s work, and yet it is hard to imagine an artist whose work is less in need of formal explication.
here was no moment when Calder discovered art; he was immersed in it from earliest childhood. He was born in 1898 in Philadelphia, the son and grandson of important sculptors. Alexander Milne Calder, the patriarch of the family, was a Scottish émigré who spent his working life creating the sculptural program of Philadelphia City Hall, literally hundreds of figures, busts, animals, and allegorical objects—culminating in his colossal statue of William Penn atop its tower. Among his assistants was his son Alexander Sterling Calder (the father of our Calder). Sterling studied in Paris and was a great admirer of Rodin; his own sculpture was in the same vein, a graceful and imaginative modern classicism. He had a lucrative career as a sculptor of public art, from the statue of Washington in Peace in New York’s Washington Square to his heroic Leif Eriksson in Reykjavik. These figures had nothing in common with his son’s fey abstractions, nothing except a refreshing lack of platitude.
Even the best biographies can falter when it comes to childhood, when in terms of meaningful events, almost nothing happens, but in terms of personality formation, everything does. But Perl does a splendid job of re-creating the peculiar psychological atmosphere of the Calder household and the remarkably loving and supportive family life enjoyed by young Sandy, as Alexander Calder was always known. His mother was also an artist, Nanette Lederer, whom his father had met in art school—according to family legend—“over a cadaver.” The marriage between Jewish Nanette and Scottish Calvinist Sterling seems to have caused no stir (perhaps an artifact of Quaker Philadelphia, which in the 19th century tended to accord German Jews honorary WASP status).
Calder’s youth was the artistic version of the life of an Army brat; he lived in Tucson and Pasadena (as his father recovered from tuberculosis) and later in San Francisco. Having no romantic vision of the life of an artist but intensely interested in gadgets, he opted for engineering. He attended the Stevens Institute of Technology, wrote a senior thesis on “Stationary Steam Turbines,” and spent a few restless years dabbling at engineering before giving up his flight from art and enrolling at the Art Students League in New York.
It seems odd that Calder’s only sustained training in art came at the Art Students League, which in 1923 was a citadel of the Ashcan School dominated by those gritty urban realists, John Sloan and George Luks. One of Perl’s surprising revelations is how much Calder’s quirky abstractions owe to his exposure to the Ashcan School. Sloan and Luks taught their students to make brisk sketches, always emphasizing vitality and freshness over academic finish. Calder quickly emerged as a deft sketch artist, good enough to make a living providing vignettes of New York life to the New York Times, the National Police Gazette, and the newly founded New Yorker. Knowing what we do of his later trajectory, it is easy to see the prophetic promise of his rollicking outlines. “I seemed to have a knack for doing it with a single line,” he would later say modestly.
Calder’s breakthrough was to turn the energetic silhouettes of his sketches into wire sculpture, twisting them into shape with pliers. This he did in Paris, where he lived from 1926 to 1933, and where he soon became a popular figure among modern artists despite his execrable French (he never successfully learned the French word for pliers). Perhaps his popularity had something to do with his utter lack of pretentiousness, which led him to be treated more as a mascot than a rival.
He first came to notice with a project that was not quite sculpture and not theater, his Cirque Calder (1926–31). Visitors would be invited to his hotel room, where he would bring out an endless pageant of “little figures and animals out of wire, cork, fabric, and sundry other materials.” Sprawled on the floor like an overgrown child, he would manipulate the figures with adroitly fashioned wires, with lions leaping when the lion tamer cracked his whip, riders landing on the backs of prancing horses, and even acrobats jumping through space to catch the flying trapeze in mid-air. Here Calder learned that he could join things that usually did not go together—ingenious mechanical engineering and clever caricature—unless it was at the carnival.
Everyone in the Parisian art world, from Mondrian to Le Corbusier to Jean Cocteau, came to see Calder’s circus. Not everyone was impressed. The lightheartedness that would remain to the end was sometimes taken as a sign of fundamental unseriousness. But 1920s Paris was itself unserious, and one of Calder’s earliest wire sculptures is an extraordinarily expressive figure of Josephine Baker, the singer and exotic dancer, whom he depicted entirely through gestural lines, her breasts and belly described as spirals of coiled force. Here Calder’s essential innocence was his greatest asset; it is hard to imagine how a more sophisticated modern artist could have made a sculpture of a black performer born in St. Louis, and have it stand for the cosmopolitan freedom of Jazz Age Paris.
erl gives an entertaining account of the final formative experience, a 1930 visit to the studio of the Dutch painter Mondrian. This was an astonishingly rigorous place in which the only shapes were rectangular (diagonals were too frivolous) and the only colors permitted were red, blue, and yellow (the three primary colors). Here Mondrian devoted himself to neoplasticism, the arrangement of colored rectangles into the most harmonious proportions that would create “universal beauty.” Calder was overwhelmed by the sheer chromatic intensity of the space, and in a fit of enthusiasm suggested that “it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate.” Mondrian was properly horrified and dismissed the idea out of hand; he told Calder, with surely unintentional humor, “my painting is already very fast.”
For Calder, the encounter was a revelation. Perl quotes him as saying it “was like the baby being slapped to start his lungs working.” If Mondrian would not make abstract bits of color twirl and oscillate in space, Calder would, and within a year he began making his first kinetic sculpture. There was no word for this category of construction, composed of only lines and planes moving in space, and Calder asked his friend Marcel Duchamp to suggest a name. “Mobiles,” Duchamp immediately answered. These first were operated mechanically, like his circus figures, with a hand crank or even an electric motor, but Calder grew bored at their repetitive mechanical motion. He began to suspend his metal planes in the air, where they would flutter in the slightest breeze.
Calder made one other change. Instead of Mondrian’s severe geometry, he gave his aluminum planes the curved lines of living things. If the abstraction came from painters like Mondrian, his specific shapes came from the language of surrealism, with its strange imaginary seas, populated by pulsing life forms of indeterminate character but with distinct staring eyes and outstretched tendrils and antennae.
In Europe, abstraction and surrealism were mutually exclusive, each the hard-won product of deep and convulsive historical forces. American artists, like Calder and (later) Jackson Pollock, could remain blithely indifferent to their underlying ideologies and hostilities, and embrace them merely as aesthetic strategies. A surrealist and a cubist might engage in a fistfight in a Paris street, but not in New York.
And yet, while Calder’s creative blend of these two European movements preceded Pollock’s by a decade, it was the turbulent and driven action painter, with his furious urgency and demand to be taken seriously, who became America’s most prestigious modern artist. Doubtless it was again Calder’s cheerful insouciance that caused him to be underrated. The dream world of his mobiles is a curiously childlike place, occupied by cartoon lobsters and goofy bugs and gangly circus animals. If it is surreal, it is a surrealism without tragedy; there is little in it of the facts of birth and death, and the erotic imagination is that of a child.
He was also innocent of politics, at least artistic politics. In a startling chapter, Perl shows that the most celebrated work of political art of the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica, was installed at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair directly behind a fountain by Calder. This was a stunning translation of the classical fountain into the language of modernism: Instead of water, there was a pool of flowing liquid mercury (an important mineral resource of Spain). Under the circumstances of the Spanish Civil War, the pavilion of the Spanish Republic was something of an improvisation, and Calder had been brought in as a last-minute stopgap, an American artist who was also an engineer who could handle a dangerous and reactive element like mercury. Perl reproduces a photograph of Calder standing between Guernica and his abstract fountain, a mobile poised alertly above it; one cannot help thinking that but for Picasso’s lament for the Spanish Republic, Calder’s monumental fountain might have been celebrated as one of the great works of 1930s sculpture.
But at a time of looming war, Calder’s apolitical art struck some observers as heedless aestheticism. One of these was Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a bitterly scathing account of Calder in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). Wolfe had seen a version of Calder’s circus in 1929 (at which the sculptor Noguchi assisted) and was disgusted at its self-indulgence and mawkishness. In the novel, Calder is presented as the overweight and shambling “Piggy Logan,” whose elaborate performance is written off as “some puny form of decadence.” Perl notes that Wolfe would have been temperamentally unable to understand someone like Calder “who wasn’t a tormented personality.”
All this helps explain why although Calder died in 1976, Perl’s is the first attempt at anything like a definitive biography.
erl paints a winning portrait of Calder, an immensely appealing and gregarious artist who never quite grew up. His great service is not to burden Calder with excessive theoretical baggage. He makes it abundantly clear that Calder was not terribly interested in art theory, ideology, politics, or metaphysics in any form: “My fingers always seem busier than my mind.” It is entirely characteristic that whenever he tried to explain his theory of art, his prose turned into awkward discussions of what he called “disparity.” This meant a dread of classical symmetry: “Anything suggestive of symmetry is decidedly undesirable, except possibly where an approximate symmetry is used in a detail to enhance the inequality with the general scheme.” For Calder, disparity was the off-kilter equipoise of the mobile, in which quite disparate shapes and weights to either side of the center of gravity balanced each other in dynamic equilibrium. But to speak of this as “disparity” is to use the language of the former engineer, training that inoculated Calder against artistic obscurantism.
Occasionally Perl goes astray, as when he interprets Calder’s art as a childlike rebellion against being “framed” by his parents—framed literally by the framed paintings they made of him, and later by restricting his career possibilities in terms of their own. His answer was to create a new form of art, the stabile, which could never be confined within a frame or placed on its sculptural equivalent, a pedestal. Perl rather ponderously writes:
Calder’s art, the art of a heavy man who was light on his feet and extraordinarily agile with his hands, was grounded in a desire to escape the frame-up and find his proper place, his proper balance in the world. The stabile and the mobile, the one always inclining toward heaviness, the other always inclining toward lightness, were his ways of keeping the possibilities open . . . and the mobile, which was by its very nature a family of forms, was also a study in familial and social relationships.
Maybe. On the other hand, maybe not.
Throughout the book, Perl grapples with the paradox that Calder seems to have known every significant figure in the world of modern arts and letters and yet only in convivial fellowship rather than probing intellectual exchange. Perl gives lively sketches of these friendships, eked out with amusing anecdotes and social gossip, but they read somewhat as name-dropping filler, shedding light on Calder’s social world but not on his inner life.
The final chapter brings Calder up to 1940 (before concentrating in the next volume on the mobiles that would dominate the second half of his career). Here Perl swings for the bleachers. Trying to define the ineffable quality of what he calls Calder’s “Classical Style,” he relates Calder’s work to themes found in the work of a whole roster of cultural luminaries—Leonardo da Vinci and Mozart, August Strindberg and James Joyce, Isaac Newton and Nietzsche. All this is unnecessary at the end of a book that presents Calder as one of the world’s great empirical artists, with his uncanny tactile sense, his delight in the physicality of shapes between gravity and force, which waddle and sag and tilt and roll and swell—an affirmation of a child’s delight at the wondrous world. As for Nietzsche and Newton, I join with Calder and say Ercaberk!