BooksWeekend

How Alexander Calder Made Modern Art Move

In the second volume of a definitive biography, the art critic Jed Perl recalls how the innovative artist revolutionized sculpture.

Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976 by Jed Perl

Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976 (Knopf, 2020) is the second and final volume of Jed Perl’s exhaustively researched recounting of a deeply influential, big-name modernist’s very big life.

The new book follows Perl’s first volume, Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940, which was published in late 2017. Perl, the former, longtime art critic for the New Republic, spent more than a decade researching and writing his comprehensive biography of Alexander Calder. In this volume, the ideas and achievements of an artist who, the author argues, played an essential role in inventing the art of the 20th century have been discerningly documented — and critically assessed — as never before.

Calder — who was known to his friends and everyone in the art world as “Sandy,” his boyish nickname — was born in Philadelphia in 1898 to artist parents who had met while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was a sculptor who revered Rodin and whose public works include a statue of George Washington on the arch in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. Sandy’s paternal grandfather, a Scottish-born immigrant to the US, had also been a sculptor; his well-known monuments include the statue of William Penn atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Since his childhood, Calder had been an inveterate tinkerer, always skillful and clever with a pair of pliers and a spool of wire; artistic by nature, he laid a valuable practical foundation for his future work by majoring in engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Then, in the 1920s and early 1930s, like his parents in their younger years, Calder spent some formative time in Paris, where he fell in with a legion of artists and writers who would help shape the ethos, attitudes, and styles of modernism. The plasticiens (visual artists) among them had worked their way through the aesthetic-technical issues that Cubism had thrown up earlier in the century. All were eager to develop their own new modes of expression.

Alexander Calder, “Vertical Constellation with Bomb” (1943), wood, wire, and paint, 31 x 30 x 18 inches (photo © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Calder’s encounter with Piet Mondrian at the Dutch painter’s studio in Paris in 1930 brought the young American an epiphany: in examining the older modernist’s geometric compositions, whose rhythmic energy belied their austere, static forms, Sandy realized that his own art — rigid, stationary sculpture — might also, somehow, become animated — literally, if not only suggestively. For Perl, that breakthrough discovery provides the main key to understanding the evolution of Calder’s revolutionary art.

Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976 picks up the thread of Sandy’s life story and career trajectory at a crucial moment. With World War II brewing, the artist left Paris for the United States, where he and his wife Louisa, a grandniece of the writer Henry James, purchased an 18th-century farmhouse in western Connecticut (though his deep, abiding ties to France would lead him, in the 1950s, to set up a second residence and an ever-expanding studio in the Touraine region, southwest of Paris).

Calder, Perl notes, had been too young to be drafted to serve in the first world war and, later, was considered too old for the second. During the 1930s and 1940s, Sandy and Louisa’s Connecticut home became a gathering place and refuge for a steady stream of artist and writer friends fleeing the Nazis and the chaos of the war in Europe.

Both in Connecticut and during his routine forays into nearby New York City, Calder crossed paths with André Masson, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Arshile Gorky, among others, as well as such established, local cultural figures as the architect-designer Frederick Kiesler, the curator James Johnson Sweeney, the collector and art dealer Peggy Guggenheim (he made her an outlandish bed headboard), and the writer-editor Malcolm Cowley. Some of these creative confrères became the Calders’ close, lifelong friends.

Alexander Calder and his wife, Louisa Calder, riding an elephant, India, 1955 (photo © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Sandy and Louisa’s lives became deeply informed by their treasured, diverse, international community of friends and professional associates, and, later, by their travels to other parts of the world. They both spoke French capably enough, even if Calder, a bear of a man who sometimes appeared to withdraw into himself, tended to mumble in any language. He was never a nationalist or an adherent of any religion (his mother was Jewish, which made Calder Jewish, too, according to Judaic law, but he never practiced Judaism). Perl writes, “Sandy had grown up with a Scottish Protestant father in a family where art was the one religion in which everybody believed.”

At his Connecticut home, Calder built a workshop on the foundation of an old barn. Perl notes that, in this rural setting, Sandy, like his nearby neighbor, the émigré Masson, “embraced the fecundity of nature,” and that his surroundings “pushed Calder’s art in new lyric directions.” (Masson, Perl adds, “liked to paint in the nude.”)

Calder continued developing “mobiles,” his signature inventions consisting of delicate cascades of wire and shaped bits of metal, wood, or glass. Normally suspended from the ceiling and moving gently in response to air currents, they never fail to energize the space around them.

A sophisticated, if totally natural and unaffected sense of freedom, playfulness, and sometimes even joy pulses through these works and so many others that Calder created throughout his long career. As Perl observes, as much as the mobiles command the physical spaces they occupy, they are also, unmistakably, self-contained. The artist referred to his various three-dimensional works as “objects,” not as “sculptures.”

Alexander Calder examining the installation of his large mobile, “.125” (1957), at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport), New York, 1957 (photo © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Perl writes that “for an artist with an imagination as voracious as Sandy Calder’s, the vigorous imperatives of reality were never far from the equally vigorous imperatives of fantasy.” Although Calder hobnobbed with the European Surrealists, as Perl notes, when it came to “artistic controversies, debates, and turf battles,” he “kept his own counsel.” His art defied familiar labels. “The art of the mobile, after all, transformed a fantasy of matter-in-motion into matter that actually moved.”

Later, he adds: “[Calder] defied many if not all of the conventions of sculpture. The art of the mobile was the art of a verticalist. By making sculpture move, Calder had indeed conquered time.” Reaching beyond the earlier experiments of, say, the Cubists or the Futurists, who had toyed with the theme of time two-dimensionally, Calder brought a sensation of real time unfolding into art, forever transforming sculpture’s expressive power.

Perl recalls Calder’s first retrospective exhibition, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943; it affirmed the uniqueness of his contributions to modern art’s still-evolving language. Some of Perl’s most engaging passages are those in which he finds meaning in his subject’s working methods or analyzes certain aesthetic issues that emerged from Calder’s oeuvre.

About the sculptor’s Constellations series of the 1940s, a group of small, freestanding works that employed bits of walnut, maple, or mahogany, Perl observes, “To work in wood was to embrace a substance that already had a mysterious life of its own.” Later, he notes that the subsequent, younger generation of modern artists — whose celebrated, postwar existential angst fueled gutsy Abstract Expressionism — dismissed Calder’s art. For them, aesthetically, it felt too lightweight.

Alexander Calder, “Flamingo” (1973), sheet metal and paint, 636 x 720 x 288 inches, Chicago, in a photo dated circa 1973 (photo © 2020 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Nevertheless, whether representing the US at the Venice Biennale or creating large-scale public works — Duchamp suggested that Calder call them “stabiles,” a French word whose meaning was the opposite of “mobile” — Sandy spent the decades until his death in 1976 making his mark around the world.

With large steel “objects” that seemed to have landed from outer space in such places as Spoleto, Italy; Mexico City; Chicago; and Jerusalem — even as, curiously, they integrated neatly with their surroundings — Calder redefined the meaning of monumental sculpture in the modern age. Implicitly employing the language of abstract form, these massive, oddly shaped creations subtly evoked history, humankind’s relationship with nature, and other themes that resonated with the inhabitants of the cities in which they were installed.

In a poetic-sounding remark about his mobiles in the catalogue of a 1941 exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York, Calder wrote, “How can art be realized? masses, directions, limited spaces within the great space, the universe…” Describing his then-novel works, he concluded, “…abstractions which resemble nothing in life except their manner of reacting.”

If that artist’s statement sounds like mumbling-in-print, Perl’s assessment of the grand lesson to be gleaned from the artist’s work and career is more lucid. Of Calder’s enduring achievement, he writes:

[He] took his place among the generations of modern artists, beginning with Rodin, Cézanne, Brancusi, and Picasso, who reconsidered what it meant to create life. No longer were the figures in a painting or a sculpture what really mattered. Now what mattered was the life of the work of art itself.

Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976 (2020) by Jed Perl is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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