BooksWeekend

The Making of a Modernist in the First-Ever Biography of Alexander Calder

Jed Perl makes the case that Calder was both an avant-gardist and a populist.


In her memoir, Blood Memory: An Autobiography, Martha Graham, the pioneering modern-dance choreographer, recalled an incident from the early 1930s, sometime after she and a coterie of collaborators had begun teaching summer courses at Bennington College, in Vermont. Referring to a visit from the American sculptor Alexander Calder, she wrote:

Sandy Calder came to Bennington in his old automobile with Feathers, his French sheepdog. According to Bennington lore, when he emerged from his car, he was wearing nothing but his undershorts. He was taken immediately to a rather conservative men’s shop in town to be outfitted.

“I need some pants,” Calder said to the salesman.

“You most certainly do,” came the reply.

Graham’s recollection hints that such amusing eccentricities reflected a kind of behavioral alternating current, in which Calder, as he made his way through everyday life, was somehow keenly aware of his unusual actions and their impact on others even as, somehow, he remained lost in his own ruminations.

Alexander Calder, “Dog” and “Duck” (1909), folded-metal works made by the artist when he was 11 years old, ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by Tom Powel Imaging

That way of being in the world, at once engaged in reality but also preoccupied with one’s own ideas and impulses, is one of the narrative strains coursing through Jed Perl’s recently published Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940 (Knopf). Perl, a well-known American art critic who formerly wrote for the New Republic, and who has written numerous books about different aspects of modern-art history, was granted full access to his subject’s letters and personal archive during the decade he spent researching and writing this comprehensive, first-ever critical biography of one of the giants of modernism.

In a recent e-mail exchange, Perl told me, “I would never have written a biography of Calder — never would have devoted so many of my energies to his art and his life — if I didn’t love the work. Why do I love it? For its lucidity, force, wit, and elegance; for its subtlety and power; for its immediate impact and multiplying meanings; for the eloquence of Calder’s forms.”

Perl’s book recounts the development of a remarkably original talent whose contributions to the language of modern art — wire sculptures; abstract, kinetic mobiles; monumental, stationary “stabiles” — tend to be well recognized by art historians, even if the details of his life story are far less familiar to art lovers than those of such well-known modernists as Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock.

Alexander Calder, “Necklace for Louisa” (1937) and “Choker for Louisa” (circa 1948), ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by Maria Robledo

As Perl points out, Calder grew up in a family of artists. (Could it be that his fate was foretold?) His Scottish-born grandfather, the sculptor Alexander Milne Calder, had immigrated to the United States in 1868 and settled in Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with the painter Thomas Eakins and later created the sculptural work for Philadelphia’s ornate City Hall, including the massive statue of William Penn that crowns its central tower.

Alexander Stirling Calder (known as “Stirling”) was one of A. M. Calder’s several sons and, like his father, a sculptor. He, too, studied at PAFA, where, as family legend has it, he met his future wife, Nanette Lederer, a portrait painter, “over a cadaver” in anatomy class. Nanette, the daughter of Bavarian Jews, had come to Philadelphia from Milwaukee following her mother’s death to live with an aunt.

Stirling Calder, who appreciated the vivacity and veracity of Rodin’s sculpture, and who once looked back fondly on “something of the spirit of Walt Whitman” that had been “in the air” at the art academy, went on to land numerous commissions, including one for one of the statues of George Washington on the arch in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. His biggest job was overseeing the creation of a vast array of decorative sculptures, including many of his own, for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Alexander Calder, “Steel Fish” (1934), ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Following their art school studies, Stirling and Nanette, who were married in 1895, spent some time in Paris, where their first child, Peggy, was born. But they were back in the US, living near Philadelphia, when Alexander, who became known as “Sandy,” was born in 1898; he was a hefty, eleven-pound baby, whose birth required a risky, forceps-aided delivery.

For reasons related as much to Stirling’s search for work as to his health — he had contracted tuberculosis in 1905 — the Calders moved around frequently during Sandy and Peggy’s childhood years. They were not affluent; sometimes they struggled, but their homes were filled with the intangible rewards of creativity and imagination: A ranch in Arizona, where an old man showed Sandy, as he would later recall, “how to make a wigwam out of burlap bags pinned together with nails”; a house in Pasadena, California, where the boy had a basement workshop; Philadelphia, again; Croton-on-Hudson, north of Manhattan; San Francisco and Oakland, California — these were some of the places in which Sandy grew up, exposed to his parents’ art-making and encouraged by them to cultivate, as Perl notes, the “play instinct” in his penchant for tinkering and making things. Decades later, the now world-famous modern artist would observe that he had always relied on “the twitching of my fingers — even naked (without pliers).”

Alexander Calder and Margaret French dancing while Louisa Calder (the artist’s wife) plays the accordion outside James Thrall Soby’s house, Farmington, Connecticut, 1936, ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by James Thrall Soby

After finishing high school, Calder went to college at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. But he felt ambivalent about that program of study. Although his parents had recognized his talents — at the age of 11, he was creating ingenious, folded-metal animal figures whose clever, simple forms, in retrospect, would hold clues to innovations to come — they had become concerned about his survival prospects were he to choose the artist’s life.

Calder went on to work at a series of short-term jobs, including, in 1922, that of boiler-room fireman on a ship bound for San Francisco via the Panama Canal. During that voyage, Perl notes, young Sandy experienced the first of two big epiphanies that would play great roles in shaping his art. As the artist later wrote in Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures (1966),

It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch — a coil of rope — I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed me most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system.

That stunning image of “the sun and the moon joined together in a single visual field,” Perl writes, “was a natural occurrence, but to Calder it was much more than that,” for, similarly, the genre-defying abstract works he would go on to create would constitute “an art not of isolated or singular objects but of a dialogue between objects — of disparate but linked elements and forces. […] What Calder ultimately discovered was a poetics not so much of nature but of the forces that shape the natural world.”

Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940, chronicles the artist’s trajectory through his early 40s; a second volume will recount the rest of his life story, through his death in New York in 1976.

Alexander Calder, rack with grills and utensils, circa 1935–45, in the kitchen of the artist’s house in Roxbury, Connecticut, 1950, ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by Herbert Matter

It’s probably hard for a biographer not to feel compelled to psychoanalyze a subject from time to time; fortunately, when Perl does dip into Calder’s psyche in search of clues to understanding his ideas, he does so without forcing his findings through any preconceived critical framework. Thankfully, too, he avoids attempting to psychoanalyze Calder through his artworks. At one point, Perl notes that the artist “wasn’t given to what most people would describe as reflection or introspection,” adding, “At least he wasn’t inclined to admit to it.” Similarly, for all its abstract beauty and charm, when it comes to revealing — or not — its meanings, Calder’s art seems to delight in its mystery and ambiguity. Perl points out that the artist did not like giving his creations titles whose meanings were too literal.

Although Perl’s big book does a superb job of describing the environments in which Calder, as the star of his own story, developed, often Sandy does not exactly leap off the page, even if some of the figures around him do (his mother, for example, or his wife, Louisa James Calder, a grandniece of the writer Henry James). Whatever Sandy’s persona lacked in Sturm und Drang, however, it made up for in the fire of his unbridled, fecund imagination.

Alexander Calder, “Equestrian act from Cirque Calder” (1926–31), wire, cloth, wood, cardboard, paint, rhinestones, and thread, ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by Sheldan C. Collins, ©Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

As Perl lays it out in fine detail, Calder’s story reads like a chronicle of some of the most important developments in the history of modern art, a narrative in which Sandy routinely found himself in the right place at the right time.

After his period at Stevens, Calder studied at the Art Students League in New York; in 1926, he visited Paris for the first time, immediately falling in with a vibrant community of avant-garde confrères, and establishing a base for what would become a lifelong involvement with France. Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and many other artists would cross Calder’s path or enter his orbit.

Alexander Calder at work in his icehouse studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, 1936, ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by James Thrall Soby

As he developed his signature wire sculptures, he also began creating performances with his “Cirque Calder,” a multi-element, miniature circus made from wire, cork, fabric scraps, and other found materials; for many years, this ongoing project, whose parts eventually filled five suitcases, was one of the artist’s greatest passions.

One of the highlights of Perl’s book is the 1930 encounter between the 32-year-old Sandy and the 58-year-old Piet Mondrian at the painter’s spare, bright-white Paris studio. Perl notes that, four years later, Calder wrote to the American art collector Albert Gallatin, recalling that his “first impulse to work in the abstract” had come from visiting Mondrian’s atelier, where he was struck by the power of the Dutch modernist’s stripped-down palette of black, white, and the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. That meeting turned out to be the second great breakthrough of Calder’s career.

Perl writes that, until meeting Mondrian, Calder “didn’t have a feeling for a pure abstract art. He hadn’t yet experienced abstract art viscerally, immediately, with all his heart and soul.”

From here, Perl’s book recounts the emergence of Calder’s canonical works. A long run of exhibitions in Europe and the US brought this work to the attention of the international art world as well as the general public. Eventually he would purchase an old farm property in Roxbury, Connecticut, and build a studio that would become his permanent base in his homeland.

Alexander Calder, “Vertical Foliage” (1941), ©2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By e-mail, Perl observed that a “miraculous achievement” of Calder’s abstract art was that it spoke to an international audience — successfully and on its own terms. “Calder embraced all the complexities of abstract art,” Perl told me, pointing out that “he was unafraid of difficulty or mystery and he embraced all those complexities with a confidence that defied people’s doubts. He made abstract art comprehensible — without in any way compromising its mysterious power.” Beginning as a “key figure in the international abstract avant-garde,” he “went on in the 1960s to become one of the most widely admired and beloved artists in the world,” and he was able to do so, Perl noted, “without ever losing his vanguard cred.” As an artist, Perl remarked, Calder was both an avant-gardist and a populist.

In 1936, Martha Graham commissioned Calder to design the set for her ballet Horizons, which he conceived as an ensemble of sculptural elements that one critic dismissed as “a series of floating balloons, ropes wriggling like sleepy snakes, and something that resembled a huge turnip.” And yet, for all its unconventionality and strange grace, it dared to express, unabashedly, something even this high priestess of modernism’s gospel of pure form could savor — an unsinkable, even inescapable sense of fun.

Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940 (2017) is published by Knopf and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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