What do we make of the subtitle of Jed Perl’s new biography of Alexander Calder, “The Conquest of Time”? It sounds like a “Star Trek” movie. The answer comes two-thirds of the way through this shaggy and fascinating volume: Time-conquering is theory-speak for the fact that many of Calder’s works move .
But then, we knew that. That’s why we’re reading about Calder in the first place. We admire his famous mobiles — even the modest-scaled ones, now selling for $10 million to $20 million — along with his almost-as-famous, often gigantic stabiles, those of his “objects,” as he liked to call them, that don’t move.
The laconic Calder downplayed theory, but Perl treasures it. And that works out strangely well, for who but a bold, incredibly knowledgeable critic such as Perl would have the guts to, in essence, read the mind of a sculptor who preferred bending wire to batting around high-minded jargon?
Referring to Calder’s “Two Spheres Within a Sphere” (1931), Perl cites art historian Meyer Schapiro’s argument “that for nineteenth-century thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Darwin, and Marx, there was an increased emphasis on ‘the historical sense of nature as changing, as becoming. . . . Time assumed prestige as the dimension of growth, change, fulfillment, and hope, as opposed to the older view of time as an eroding, destructive force.’ ” In the tide of that movement, Perl writes, “Calder was looking for a way to capture that timeliness. He was going to conquer time.”
The conceit feels a bit hyped. But Perl does persuade us that Calder, although inspired by isms — modernism, cubism, abstractionism, surrealism — somehow evaded their constricting clutches and pioneered new forms that evolved from playful to beautiful to monumental. Like Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp and Mondrian, Calder widened the vocabulary of perception.
Time, form, motion and viewer together define the experience of his art. That implicit contract with the viewer has become so commonplace that we take it for granted, whether transfixed by a Calder mobile in the National Gallery or enjoying participatory performance art. Perl’s accomplishment here is to peel back almost a century of artistic expectations, extract Calder from his phenomenal success, and let us see the influences and experiments that led to it.
Paradoxically, this renegade artist was also just a fella taking over the family business. His dad and granddad were both sculptors. His grandfather Alexander Milne Calder sculpted the giant William Penn atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. Calder’s father, A. Stirling Calder, contributed to and oversaw sculptures for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He and Calder’s mother, Nanette, a talented painter, sometimes used the young Calder as a model.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Arizona, California and New York, Calder got an eyeful of America’s cityscapes, as well as its sweeping horizons. Perl points out likely influences such as Stirling’s acrobat sculptures and the Arts and Crafts-movement architecture and decor that Calder saw in Pasadena. Although he’d been precociously making toys and sculptures since he was a boy, Calder thought he’d apply his deft hands and math skills to engineering. But after he graduated from the Stevens Institute of Technology, he gradually found peace with himself as an artist. He painted in an urban-realist style, drew whimsical illustrations for newspapers and sculpted with wire before evolving into the Calder of the suspended biomorphic forms we’re most familiar with.
He never abandoned his playful and practical sides. He designed animal toys for a company in Wisconsin, entertained living-room audiences in Paris and New York with his miniature “Circus,” and made jewelry, which sold nicely.
In 1930, though, “Calder became an abstract artist and a married man,” Perl writes. “These were the two most important decisions he ever made, the foundations on which he would build for the rest of his life.”
The abstraction was largely inspired by the visionary work of Miró and Mondrian. The bride was the smart, beautiful Louisa James, whom Calder met on board a ship and nicknamed Medusa for her bewitching curls. She reinforced his confidence in following his art, which took a more philosophical, serious turn under the dark clouds of fascism and the Depression.
Those looking for a sleek life story will sometimes be maddened by Perl’s digressions. He sees as a herald of Calder’s milieu, for example, Henry James’s 1875 novel “Roderick Hudson,” about an American sculptor in Rome. At another point, he drifts into an aside about the English writer Mary Butts’s interest in the occult and the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky. “Did Calder discuss any of this with Mary Butts? Probably not. But that’s hardly the point,” Perl writes. “Calder was beginning to feel the power of his genius, and genius, a matter of intuitions that short-circuit normal matters of influence and assimilation, would be attuned to the implications of the occult.” Well, maybe; maybe not. It’s conjecture, but intriguing conjecture.
My recommendation? Relax. Bathe in Perl’s erudition. Enjoy his enthusiastic cat-chasing-butterflies side excursions.
We leave the middle-aged Calder in the early 1940s, well represented in the elite galleries of New York, Paris and London, working in an expansive studio next to the rural Connecticut home he shares with Louisa and their daughters. Come 2019, Perl plans to publish the concluding volume, as Calder becomes an international superstar. Expect that continuing saga to be every bit as unruly and instructive. Perl will undoubtedly orbit around his expository center of gravity with a confident élan that Calder might occasionally chuckle at but also recognize and appreciate.
Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune.
By Jed Perl
Knopf. 687 pp. $55