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‘Calder: The Conquest of Space’ paints a stunning portrait of an ever-evolving artist

An image of Alexander Calder’s “Peacock” from 1941. (Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

It takes a big-hearted, ambitious biographer to take on the life of a big-hearted, ambitious artist. Alexander Calder has found a perfect match in Jed Perl.

Three years ago, Knopf published the first volume of Perl’s Calder bio, subtitled “The Conquest of Time.” Now comes the second, subtitled “The Conquest of Space” and covering the period from 1940 to 1976. It is, at close to 700 pages, equally stout and smart. Together they seem destined to qualify as the definitive account of Calder’s life for many years to come.

Casual art fans in a hurry will find more detail here than they want from this exceptionally informed art commentator, who has written for the New Republic and authored a half-dozen previous books. Not everyone, for instance, will care about the politics of Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa. Or the entrepreneurial streak of Calder’s son-in-law Howard Rower, who began lending money to friends in elementary school.

The cumulative effect, however, of charting not just Calder’s aesthetic constellation but also his family situation, finances, critical reception, curatorial politics and the like is to gradually gain at least partial entry to his worldview. That’s a signal accomplishment because Calder wasn’t much of a talker, particularly about his work. When he did, it was in a vague, laconic manner that belied the depth of his intense intellect and wide-ranging influences.

Perl’s challenges in bringing forth a worthy second volume are inherently greater. There’s more natural sympathy toward and tension in an artist’s formative years than in the development and management of a successful career. By 1943, Calder’s work was already celebrated in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But it never stopped evolving. In 1976 — the year he died, at 78, of a heart attack after suffering for years from Parkinson’s and other health troubles — this astonishingly productive third-generation sculptor was in the midst of a swirl of projects and honors.

Among them, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance produced a Calder festival. A Calder mobile, “White Cascade,” was unveiled at that city’s Federal Reserve Bank. The Pennsylvania Ballet performed “Under the Sea,” a dance tribute to the artist. He received an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania. President Gerald Ford offered him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Calder declined because of his anger over the Vietnam War. (“What do they mean by freedom?” asked his wife, the formidable Louisa.) Most important, there was a huge retrospective, “Calder’s Universe,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Calder was a loving husband and father, and in Roxbury, Conn., he and Louisa were loyal friends and dinner party hosts to throngs of neighbors and visitors from Manhattan. Wine and Latin dance records figured prominently at those soirees, which would sometimes last until breakfast.

When the Calders later moved to Saché, France, they became busy hosts to dignitaries and draft dodgers alike. He was part of a wide international circle of artists, art dealers, curators, writers, composers, choreographers, theater directors and patrons. He even scored a lucrative corporate commission, designing custom paint jobs for a couple of planes for Braniff International Airways. (Louisa held her nose at that project. She wasn’t fond of the company’s right-leaning leadership.)

In short, Calder — a big fella who was often compared to a friendly mumbling bear — was professionally and personally popular, and that broad acceptance can blind us to his aesthetic radicalism. Perl’s meticulous account reminds us how Calder helped redefine sculpture with his “objects” and mobiles, and public art more generally with his “stabiles,” those monumental abstract steel beasts — the largest almost 84 feet high — that quickly became cherished landmarks in various cities, from Chicago to Mexico City to Jerusalem.

Valuable, too, is the biographer’s inclusion of Calder’s interdisciplinary performance projects, integral to his mind-set, but ephemeral and now largely forgotten. Calder first came before the public eye, after all, in the 1920s with his “Circus” in Paris,which involved miniature wire trapeze artists and animals.

That performative joy never left him. In 1967, he unveiled “Work in Progress,” a 19-minute “ballet without dancers,” in Rome. It was a piece so personal, gestating since the mid-1920s, that Calder told a friend that it should have been called “My Life in Nineteen Minutes.” It had canvas sculptures, mobiles, eight bicyclists, a pyramid and a smiling sun.

Perl explains that the sets “were for years packed away in the storerooms of the Rome Opera. ‘Work in Progress,’ in part because it is so difficult to reconstruct, has never been regarded as central” to Calder’s oeuvre. Yet, Perl argues, “there is no question in my mind that it is one of his essential accomplishments.”

In the pinnacle scene, mobiles fill the stage — from below, from above, from the wings. The crew’s “bringing on the mobiles and then leaving,” Perl writes, “was an allegory of Calder’s life. The stagehands were the artist, who makes the work of art possible, but then must leave it to live its own life and seek its own destiny.”

Perl similarly gives vivid life to his subject, discerningly and lovingly bringing to the stage of his page Calder’s colossal daring.

Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Tribune.

The Conquest of Space

By Jed Perl

Knopf. 669 pp. $60

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