Jed Perl’s Calder: The Conquest of Time

Author Jed Perl in conversation with Alexander S. C. Rower, President of the Calder Foundation and the artist’s grandson.

Alexander S. C. Rower and Jed Perl at The 92nd St Y

Two things immediately come to mind when someone mentions Alexander (Sandy) Calder (1898-1976): endlessly varied mobiles refreshing balance/suspension and a captivating, miniature circus created by the artist out of wire, wood, cork, and fabric. What kind man generates a lifetime of original work first taken as whimsy, then as quintessential? Not, grandson Alexander Rower hastens to tell us, the jolly joking persona many people imagine.

“Seeing the Circus with ‘Sandy’ Calder,” The National Police Gazette, 23 May 1925 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“He worked in silence. We were only allowed in the studio if we were creating something.” At five, Rower asked if he could have a rearing horse he admired made out of a single piece of brass. Calder looked at the boy with astonishment. NO! “He thought I thought it was a toy, but I just wanted to put it on a shelf in my room.”

In this comprehensive biography- the first of two volumes 9 years in the making, we learn both Calder’s parents were artists. Irrepressible creativity was in his DNA, experimentation celebrated. Because of their unqualified support, he grew up “preternaturally confident” (Perl) and resilient. One idea begat another, each setback provoked further efforts. Modesty and respect for others was also hardwired. The author tells us his subject was encouraged to invent, but not to suffer the life of an artist.

Josephine Baker I, c. 1926 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photography Credit: Peter A. Juley & Son © Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Perl hypothesizes that living at the center of The Arts & Crafts Movement in Pasadena, California was a serious influence on the boy. (The family moved quite a bit.) Not only did Calder work with his hands from a young age, until he died the artist fabricated entirely without machinery. Not a single power tool was utilized to shape or connect elements of his pieces. Nor, it seems did he believe in soldering! Think about that and look closely the next time you marvel at the elegance of one of these. A drill and motorized grinder (both gifted), Rower recalls, gathered dust in a corner.

A study of mechanical engineering (“he was a whiz at science and math”) was apparently skewed to manage not build and confirmed this was not Calder’s path. Rower tells us everything his grandfather knew about construction was garnered before pursuing a degree. Astonishingly, none of his elusively complex pieces, including later, monumental ones, were executed from plans or calculations. “It was an intuitive process.” (Perl)

Untitled (maquette for 1939 New York World’s Fair), 1938 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Attending art schools in Pennsylvania and New York, he began to paint, first figuratively then in the abstract. Distress about “the drift in American society” then drove Calder to Paris in the 1920s. Peers and mentors like Miro, Mondrian, Arp, and Duchamp were instrumental in development. “I never heard he and Miro discuss art,” Rower muses on proximity to later meetings, “they completely understood each other.”

“… a number of highly skilled artists were producing decorative objects in metal… Calder was surely aware…” (Perl from the book) He began to transform open wire into sculpture, including portraits, that manifested essence and attitude with minimal, fluid line. These “rejected the traditional gravitas of sculpture but achieved their own kind of emotional gravitas.” (Perl from the book)

Vertical Foliage, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Stabiles followed at first provoking only skepticism. Calder’s first motorized, tabletop pieces were named “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp, suspended versions came after. In some of these, we’re told, each hanging shape represents the member of a family. Perl writes the mobiles offered movement in space and time defining the artist’s place in Modernism.

At the 92Y, he refers to his subject’s undoubted interest in the then popularized theory of fourth dimension shared with such enthusiasts as Duchamp. “The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof. For that is a rather large model to work from.” Calder

Calder with Mobile in his Roxbury studio, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photography Credit: Herbert Matter

Calder and his new wife Louisa scraped by. Around this time, he created Cirque Calder. The artist carried dozens of 2”-4” figures and a diminutive ring to galleries and parties where he’d hand-manipulate them, putting on a show with French monologue and music. This, Perl tells us, was his entre into the avant-gardes in Paris and later New York.

Even in his utterly controlled world, things were not perfect. Rower tells us Calder actually choreographed performance mishaps, “…like letting a trapeze artist fall, to make the next attempt more thrilling.” Some of these shows were reviewed by circus critics. “What struck people was the dynamic relationship between this large American guy and these small figures.” (Rower) New York’s Whitney Museum owns the piece.

Alexander Calder courtesy of Wikipedia

Victorian art critic John Ruskin argued that everything from a stool to a painting is on the same continuum. ” …the hand, the head and the heart of man go together.” Calder created over 1800 of pieces of jewelry, toys (in Paris and for his children), household objects (including a series of functional toasters), and what we think of as art. “There’s a kind of ravishment about his art,” Perl exclaims. Volume two will arrive in the next two or three years.

I read sections of the 700 page, liberally illustrated tome. Though meant for scholars and curators, writing is entertaining, accessible and insightful as well as digressive. Those who are curious might find themselves picking it up and putting it down over time. Quite a piece of work.

Photos courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf except the portrait Courtesy of Wikipedia
Opening: The Book; Jed Perl-Photography Credit: © Duane Michels

Jed Perl’s Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years 1898-1940
Jed Perl & Alexander S. C. Rower
92 Y Poetry Center
December 3, 2017

The Book: Calder: The Conquest of Time
Jed Perl

About Alix Cohen (845 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.