Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976

Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976

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

Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976

by Jed Perl


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The concluding volume to the first biography of one of the most important, influential, and beloved twentieth-century sculptors, and one of the greatest artists in the cultural history of America—is a vividly written, illuminating account of his triumphant later years.

The second and final volume of this magnificent biography begins during World War II, when Calder—known to all as Sandy—and his wife, Louisa, opened their home to a stream of artists and writers in exile from Europe. In the postwar decades, they divided their time between the United States and France, as Calder made his first monumental public sculptures and received blockbuster commissions that included Expo '67 in Montreal and the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Jed Perl makes clear how Calder's radical sculptural imagination shaped the minimalist and kinetic art movements that emerged in the 1960s. And we see, as well, that through everything—their ever-expanding friendships with artists and writers of all stripes; working to end the war in Vietnam; hosting riotous dance parties at their Connecticut home; seeing the "mobile," Calder's essential artistic invention, find its way into Webster's dictionary—Calder and Louisa remained the risk-taking, singularly bohemian couple they had been since first meeting at the end of the Roaring Twenties. The biography ends with Calder's death in 1976 at the age of seventy-eight—only weeks after an encyclopedic retrospective of his work opened at the Whitney Museum in New York—but leaves us with a new, clearer understanding of his legacy, both as an artist and a man.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451494115
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Series: A Life of Calder , #2
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 1,085,738
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

JED PERL is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He was the art critic for The New Republic for twenty years and a contributing editor to Vogue for a decade, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. His previous books include Magicians and Charlatans, Antoine's Alphabet, and New Art City, which was a New York Times Notable Book and an Atlantic Book of the Year. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

On June 14, 1969, a bright, cloudless Saturday, Alexander Calder and his wife, Louisa, were in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the dedication of La Grande vitesse, the enormous steel sculpture he had made for the plaza in front of the recently completed City Hall. Calder, who was seventy that June, had been dreaming about a new kind of public monument since soon after he became an abstract artist early in the 1930s. But it was only in the 1960s that those dreams were becoming realities. The times were nothing if not dramatic, and the unprecedented arrival of a colossal abstract sculpture in the heart of a conservative midwestern city was just one more small twist in a decade full of surprises. The summer of 1967 had become the Summer of Love; the anti- war movement had brought down a president; a month after the dedication of La Grande vitesse a man walked on the moon. Although much too old to be part of the decade’s youthquake, the Calders embraced the idealistic spirit of the 1960s. The immense abstract monuments that Calder was beginning to create were as bold, as wild, as brilliant, as strange, as idiosyncratic, and as unprecedented as the times in which they were produced. A good friend, thinking of Calder’s indefatigable experimentation, wrote that some of his new work suggested an “adventurous and carefree student-like march.”
On the day of the dedication of La Grande vitesse, some two thousand people gathered in downtown Grand Rapids to welcome the artist and his art. The mood was celebratory, with children cavorting at the foot of the monument. The local symphony played a work for woodwind and percussion composed for the occasion by Aaron Copland. Copland and Calder knew each other a little and shared the steadiness of purpose that American modernists needed to forge an art with international ramifications. La Grande vitesse, with its arching and curving forms and coat of bright red paint, was a colossus unlike any the United States had ever seen. It was a new kind of urban landmark. The steel plates—they weighed a total of forty-two tons and were locked together with hundreds of bolts—had a muscular energy. Some midwestern skeptics might have dismissed La Grande vitesse, erected as part of the Vandenberg Center in downtown Grand Rapids, as a monumental joke. But if Calder’s sculpture hadn’t been something of an enigma, it wouldn’t have been so exhilarating. By embracing La Grande vitesse, the citizens of Grand Rapids were also embracing the experimental spirit of the avant-garde. Charles Olson, a prophetic voice in modern American poetry, had once spoken of his country as “a complex of occasions” that created a geometry of a “spatial nature.” La Grande vitesse was a revolutionary geometry, and to move around it was to encounter a “complex of occasions”— occasions that the men and women of Grand Rapids were only beginning to grasp. What Calder had created was an imaginative exaltation.
Calder had a fine time in Grand Rapids, although he afterward confessed to an old friend, the architect Josep Lluís Sert, that he had been a little reluctant about traveling to Michigan for the dedication. He had no ties to Grand Rapids, to Michigan, or for that matter to the Midwest. Arriving in this city on the Grand River some thirty miles east of Lake Michigan, he almost immediately asked to be shown the river; he wanted to get the lay of the land. On being handed the keys to the city during the dedication, this serious man who was perfectly willing to adopt the role of the joker if it might lighten the mood at an official event, shot back, “But will it open cans?” Calder’s mother, Nanette Lederer, had been born in Milwaukee, just across Lake Michigan from Grand Rapids, but while still a young woman she had left the Midwest to become an artist in Philadelphia. Calder certainly had some sense of the part that Grand Rapids had already played in the history of American design; since the late nineteenth century this had been America’s Furniture City. Twenty years earlier, Calder had fielded an inquiry from Baker Furniture, one of the big outfits in town, about making a mobile for their art gallery. Nothing came of it—and Calder ended up writing to his dealer at the time, Curt Valentin, to complain about “those sons of bitches, who make fake antiques in Grand Rapids.”
What he may not have known was that sixty years before La Grande vitesse was inaugurated, Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a house for Meyer May, the president of a Grand Rapids clothing emporium. Wright’s Meyer May House was a work of stirring originality, with a mass, a dynamism, and a visual drama that bear comparison with some of Calder’s monumental works. There was a lot more to Grand Rapids than “fake antique furniture.” In the mid-twentieth century, the Herman Miller company in nearby Zeeland was at the forefront of progressive furniture design and production. That was where some of the most imaginative furniture created by Charles and Ray Eames was being produced. As it happened, the Herman Miller logo was based on a sculpture by Calder, the 1939 Spiny, as seen in a dramatically silhouetted photograph by Calder’s friend Herbert Matter. Among those in attendance at the dedication of La Grande vitesse was Robert Blaich, the director of design at Herman Miller; he had been a member of the committee that approached Calder about creating a work for the city. As part of the celebrations Calder was given an Eames lounge chair.
The story of how Calder came to make La Grande vitesse is a story about the growing acceptance of avant-garde ideas and ideals in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. This was, among many other things, a generational process, which was vividly on display early on the day of the inauguration, when Sandy, as everybody called him, with his aging, open face and wild aureole of white hair, was seated at a press conference next to an elegant, beautifully coiffed woman by the name of Nancy Mul- nix, who was less than half his age. She was married to LeVant Mulnix III, the scion of an old Grand Rapids family; everybody called him Lee. Nancy, a modern-day ambassador without portfolio, was a housewife with three young children who managed to turn a long-standing admiration for Calder’s work into a campaign that ultimately transformed Grand Rapids. She was, as Sandy had realized as he got to know her in the couple of years that La Grande vitesse was in the planning stages, a woman of intelligence, wit, and spirit. It was to Nancy that he turned again and again during the creation of La Grande vitesse. There were bound to be complications, since the work was fabricated in France, where Sandy and his wife were living much of the time, before being shipped to Michigan and assembled in Grand Rapids. “How late is Muskegon port open?” he wrote to Nancy in September 1968. when it came time to set up the work the month before the dedication, it was to Nancy that he sent instructions. “With 2 channel irons two channels are needed, one on each side,” he explained, along with a diagram. And then he followed up, “You tell ’em, Nancy.”
There was something disarmingly, to some maybe even suspiciously, off- beat about the way Calder and his wife lived their lives, but Nancy was on their wavelength. In the late 1960s, when many saw the counterculture as a threat to American values, the Calders could look like a countercultural grandpa and grandma. A young artist who knew them in New York was drawn to the old artist’s ubiquitous red shirt and beat-up tweed jacket and his wife’s shoulder-length gray hair and flowing, folkloric clothes—which he described, perhaps only half whimsically, as her “hippie garb. Now, in June 1969, all of Grand Rapids was getting to know the Calders. As Nancy Mulnix was by then well aware, it was difficult to dislike them if you were actually acquainted. Gerald R. Ford, the Republican who represented the congressional district in Washington and was the House minority leader, was one of the speakers at the dedication. The Republican imprimatur couldn’t have appealed to Sandy and Louisa, especially in their heightened state of political awareness; over the past four or so years they had become increasingly committed to the movement to end U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. But of course, Ford had been instrumental in lining up government funding for La Grande vitesse. Nobody needed to tell Sandy Calder that life was complicated. Betty Ford, Jerry’s wife, had as a young woman studied dance with Martha Graham and performed with her auxiliary company. That had been around the time that Calder was designing some sets for Graham. Years later, when the Calders and the Fords crossed paths again, Sandy and Betty talked about Martha.
Calder understood that the decision to place a vast abstract sculpture in Grand Rapids had been controversial; that may have been why he was a little hesitant about making the trip to Michigan. He knew that some in the city’s Republican circles were suspicious of him. He was, after all, a staunch opponent of American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Although an American citizen, he was also open to accusations of being anti-American, as he lived much of the year in France. The author of a letter to the Grand Rapids Press had complained that “his sculpture is as American as French pastry” and that “he is as foreign to Grand Rapids as is Charles de Gaulle and certainly as foreign to Grand Rapids culture.” To this someone else responded that Calder voted in the United States and paid federal taxes. That Calder had insisted on giving the work he made for Grand Rapids a French title couldn’t have made things any easier. He let it be known that La Grande vitesse meant Grand Rapids, only translated into French, but the truth was that the phrase meant high speed. Although the French title might have seemed needlessly provocative, especially given that the work was created in significant part with funds from the U.S. Treasury, those who worked closely with Sandy weren’t inclined to second-guess him. An old friend of his, the writer and collector Jean Lipman, was surely correct when she said that by titling a work for Grand Rapids La Grande vitesse, Calder was creating a “poetic” pun. In 1965, he had completed a large stabile for the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, entitled La Grande voile. It might have amused him to follow La Grande voile with La Grande vitesse. Calder might also have been thinking of the role the French played as early conquerers and colonizers of what was now Michigan.

Table of Contents

Prologue Grand Rapids 1969 3

1 The War Years 15

2 Friends and Neighbors 39

3 Life Among the Surrealists 55

4 Constellations 71

5 A Modern Retrospective 93

6 One Fire, Two Dealers, and Three Young Rats 115

7 Fathers and Sons 138

8 Paris Again 158

9 Roxbury 186

10 Questions of Travel 218

11 Le 31 Janvier 240

12 Sculpture into Architecture 260

13 Saché 290

14 Democratic Vistas 320

15 Old and Young 353

16 Teodelapio 369

17 Critics 397

18 An Autobiography with Pictures 418

19 Work in Progress 445

20 The Artist at Seventy 471

21 A House on a Hill 490

22 Late Style 517

23 Chicago, Jerusalem, and Barcelona 547

24 The Dancer and the Dance 567

Acknowledgments 585

Notes 587

Index 633

Illustration Credits 665

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