The American artist Alexander Calder is famous for colorful mobiles that evoke schools of fish, a blizzard in Connecticut, or spiders and aspens — all playing on his love of toys while integrating into sculpture the fourth dimension, time, a breakthrough that thrilled his fellow travelers among the avant-garde. This year the Whitney Museum of American Art curated a retrospective within a single light-soaked gallery, white walls a backdrop to canted wires, speckles of red, blue, gold, green. A few pieces dialogue with art history: Octopus (1944) pivots off Picasso’s amorphous forms, while The Water Lily (c. 1945) nods, in its minimalist way, toward the sumptuous, increasingly indeterminate canvases of Monet’s late period. Still others convey Calder’s expansive imagination, such as the ironic stabile Hour Glass (1941), or Snake and the Cross (1936), whose geometry throws off shadows that may tell the real story.
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In the first of two planned volumes spanning the life and career of Alexander “Sandy” Calder, the art critic Jed Perl argues that Calder’s greatness sprang from his canny ability to harness time and movement to explore form. Here Perl is following the lead of John Richardson, doing for Calder what Richardson, in his definitive, multi-book opus, has done for Picasso. Exhaustively researched, exuberantly written, Calder: The Conquest of Time captures in exquisite detail the first half of Calder’s life, beginning with his birth in Philadelphia in 1898 to a pair of artists, the WASP sculptor Stirling Calder and his Jewish wife, the painter Nanette Lederer.
Proud bohemians, the Calders offered a nurturing if nomadic life for Sandy and his sister, Peggy, as they shuttled between East and West Coasts, America and Europe. (Sandy spent part of his childhood in Pasadena, immersed in the city’s buoyant Arts and Crafts movement, which remained a touchstone throughout his life). Although trained as an engineer, Sandy absorbed his parents’ milieu, especially his father’s circle, which included John Sloan (later Sandy’s teacher) and other luminaries from the Ashcan School. The son of a sculptor himself, Stirling bounced from commission to commission, scrounging up impressive jobs, such as the George Washington statue on the arch at Washington Square Park. It came as no surprise to his parents, then, when Sandy found fresh uses for his engineering tools and joined the family business.
Calder arrived in Paris, the world’s international art capital, in 1926, unknown but eager to make his mark. In the early years he mostly socialized in Montmartre cafés, imbibing with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Isamu Noguchi, and his close friend Juan Miró, as well as fraternizing with the wealthy American expatriate community — a brash, brawling transatlantic alliance knit together by a faith in their own genius. Perl strains to map connections between figures major and minor — love affairs, petty jealousies, rival ideologies — indulging in gossip meant to leaven the narrative but instead trivializing it. He paints a vivid portrait of Calder, a hulking, cheerful young man pedaling his bicycle through the City of Light; but with all the names Perl drops, one wonders how the American found any time alone in his studio.
Calder cobbled together a living from original jewelry as well as from his first celebrated work, the Cirque Calder (1926−31), with marionettes and dolls fashioned into lion tamers, trapeze artists, and clowns, maneuvered by the artists in drawing-room performances on both sides of the ocean. But his epiphany came when he visited the studio of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose stripped-down, pure-color-and-line paintings midwifed Calder’s emergence as an abstract artist — a moment he likened to “the baby being slapped to make his lungs start working.” This shift occurred around the same time Sandy settled into a faithful, fruitful marriage to Louisa James — the elegant “philosopher” grandniece of William and Henry James — that eventually produced two daughters.
His new work consumed him. Shortly after the marriage, Marcel Duchamp stopped by the Calders’ apartment on the rue de la Colonie, where Calder picked his brain for a name for these creations:
With the seasoned chess player’s gift for contemplative silences and quick, dramatic gestures, Duchamp responded that they should be called mobiles. And so they were . . . Another artist friend, Jean Arp, announced, perhaps with a flicker of irony, that the works that didn’t move should now be referred to as stabiles. And that became their name. It was the growing popularity of Calder’s mobiles in the next couple of decades — among artists, hobbyists, manufacturers, and the public at large — that led to the term’s eventual embrace by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.
Perl builds layer upon layer of context, often detouring from the narrative into brief tutorials on Surrealism and Dada, or the career highs and lows of leading artists. (Interestingly, the inspirational Mondrian dismissed Calder’s pieces, claiming that his own canvases “moved” faster than even the younger man’s motorized sculptures.) There’s an occasionally breathy quality to the prose, as Perl strings together rhetorical questions and speculative asides: “paintings that Calder may well have known,” “It seems reasonable to assume,” “I suspect,” “Who can doubt that this snippet of poetic fun was also a cry for help?” Fortunately, these missteps are few. Calder: The Conquest of Time is a dense but fulfilling read, enriched by an abundance of anecdotes and Perl’s command of art history, making a persuasive case for Calder as a colossus who blended American self-reliance with French intellectualism, looming (literally) over Europe’s avant-garde.
As the Depression deepened and the Nazis rose, the Calders decamped back to the United States. Sandy’s direction was now clear and his masterpieces just ahead of him. As Perl writes, “The relationships of the parts to the whole — that most ancient of artistic concerns — remained Calder’s concern, only now with time and space united in a radically new way.” With its lavish illustrations, Calder: The Conquest of Time sets the stage for the artist’s mature phase, one that would forge all of Sandy’s tricks into a dazzling array of pieces that delight the eye and bend our line of vision, backward and forward, toward the achievements of modernism.