During the lockdown the second, and final, volume of Jed Perl’s biography of Alexander Calder was published. Not every modern master has been fortunate enough to have had an in depth biography written on them. But if Picasso has Richardson, Calder now has Perl.
The son and grandson of sculptors, Calder was an artist from birth and Volume one, Calder: The Conquest of Time, was published in 2017. It covered Calder’s birth in 1898, his upbringing in Philadelphia, California and New York, his training as an engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology, then his return to art and on through to his time in Paris as part of the avant-garde up to 1940. Those years saw him develop from making realist portraits drawn in space with wire on to the creation of his ground breaking abstract mobiles whose motions embody the grace and otherworldliness of the gentle air currents that move them.
Thus, Volume Two should begin in 1940 when Calder’s reputation grew beyond the avant-garde and he emerged as a truly international artist, travelling the world to fulfil commissions. But the book actually begins with a flash forwards to 1969 to the installation of Calder’s La grande vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A foretaste of the triumphs and scale to come: this was the first public art work funded by the Art in Public Places program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the piece has become a symbol of the City of Grand Rapids.
But returning to the book’s true beginning in 1940; Sandy and his wife, Louisa, spent the War years in Roxbury, Connecticut, and New York among many of the émigré artists that had fled Europe. These were people they had known and counted among their friends; Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, André Breton, whose daughter Aube would be found playing with Calder’s daughter Sandra together with Diego and Luis, André and Rose Masson’s sons. The Calders were hugely social creatures and their love of jazz, dance and wine was famed. Over the years their friends included Martha Graham, Joan Miró, and Virgil Thomson, John Cage, Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, André Kertész, and Arthur Miller to name but a few.
The war years in America were very different to those in Europe and 1943 saw New York’s Museum of Modern Art hold a retrospective of his work. The exhibition invited visitors to ‘Please touch’ and was a huge success. But not everyone approved. The critic Clement Greenberg felt both Calder and his work lacked gravitas, and he went on to say the objects had “the same personality” and that “more seems to be wanted”. It was “linear, two-dimensional in spirit if not in fact” and that it “lacks history”. Nevertheless, a measure of its success with the public can be seen in its run being extended.
London’s Tate Gallery held a Calder exhibition in 1962 and the Guggenheim in New York had a retrospective of his work in 1964-65, a version of which travelled on to Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1965. The Guggenheim exhibition was billed as “the largest assemblage ever presented of the works of a living artist,” and Calder, light-hearted as ever said “My fan mail is enormous—everybody is under six.” It was indeed a “rip-roaring success” and the museum’s director, Thomas Messer, told The Times they “didn’t foresee such attendance for an American artist who’s still with us.” However, it was with the Guggenheim show that the policy of “Please touch” finally came to an end. A friend of the Calder’s visiting the show towards its end reported: “It looks pretty worn… [and one piece] was really twisted up & the guard said he couldn’t undo it”. So the touching stopped and this is the policy of the Calder Foundation today.
All through the 1960s and 1970s as Calder’s reputation grew so too did his sculptures. Although he never abandoned the mobile that had brought the fourth dimension of time into sculpture Calder now began to make ‘stabiles’ through which he increasingly engaged with modern architecture accepting commissions worldwide, from North and South America, Europe, and beyond. These were pieces that both echoed the lines of force of the architecture they were situated near and countered them, as his flaming red Flamingo placed outside Chicago’s austere Federal Centre does. But at first the stabiles had been relatively modest in size. Just after the war he said: “I discovered at that time that a package eighteen inches long and twenty-four inches in circumference was permissible. Well, I could squeeze an object into a package two inches thick, ten inches wide, and eighteen inches long.” So he proceeded to design pieces so they could be disassembled and reassembled and posted to Paris. But with commissions allowing for greater space Calder’s stabiles grew until they were towering constructions. The Grand Rapids’ 1969 La Grande vitesse was 43’ x 55’ x 25’ feet but it was comparatively small when compared to El Sol Rojo’s 84’ 8”. It stands outside the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, made for the 1968 Olympics there.
His creative powers undimmed, with the 1970s came an almost Baroque phase in Calder’s work with the creation of his Crinklies and Animobiles that burst into multicolour straight from an imaginary Vaudeville act. Hilton Kramer wrote: “he democratized a form that had remained distant and aloof.” An abstract sculptor to the very end, yet a great deal of Calder’s work conjures up memories of creatures on the edge of dreams. They are the grown up figures of the Cirque Calder. It is, however, Calder’s sense of fun, of play in his work that for many signified he was less than serious and Calder himself seems rarely to have spoken about his work or what his intentions were, wishing to leave it open-ended, un-hemmed in. Perl deals with this by situating Calder’s work within critical debates of the time and his very thorough research reveals the artist as a cultivated, well-read man with political engagements. He was against the war in Vietnam a commitment that at the end of his life led him to demure receiving the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civil honour.
Among Calder’s lesser known works, because they were ephemeral are those that deal with the performing arts. Friends had included both musicians and dancers so it should come as no surprise that there is a sculpture Chef d’orchestre for which the composer, Earle Brown, wrote a piece for involving the sculpture itself functioning as both conductor, in the way it moved in various unpredictable ways and speeds, and as an instrument to be played. Calder also created a ballet with no dancers but brightly clad cyclists and mobiles entitled Work in Progress that was performed in Rome. Rather than treating them as a side-line Perl shows them to be integral to Calder’s overall work and thinking.
Calder got sculpture moving in a way that echoes the universe and its movements. Now that bookshops are open again go out and indulge in this master of the dance of arts.
Jed Perl, Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976, Alfred A. Knopf, April 2020