Calder The conquest of time : the early years, 1898-1940

Jed Perl

Book - 2017

Alexander Calder is one of the most beloved and widely admired artists of the twentieth century. Anybody who has ever set foot in a museum knows him as the inventor of the mobile, America's unique contribution to modern art. But only now, forty years after the artist's death, is the full story of his life being told in this biography,which is based on unprecedented access to Calder's letters and papers as well as scores of interviews. Jed Perl shows us why Calder was--and remains-...-a barrier breaker, an avant-garde artist with mass appeal.

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2017.
First edition
Physical Description
viii, 687 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 607-649) and index.
Main Author
Jed Perl (author)
  • Prologue: "I was framed"
  • Philadelphia
  • Stirling and Nanette
  • Father and son
  • Pasadena
  • Croton-on-Hudson
  • The Panama-Pacific International Exposition
  • The Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Engineering
  • The Art Students League
  • Animal sketching
  • Paris
  • Cirque Calder
  • Wire sculpture
  • Rue Cels
  • Louisa James
  • Villa Brune
  • Mondrian's studio
  • Marriage
  • Volumes
  • Vecteurs
  • Densités
  • Mobiles
  • Rue de la Colonie
  • Painter Hill Road
  • From Sandra to Socrate
  • A very good year
  • Mercury fountain
  • A London season
  • Turning forty
  • The classical style.
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Art critic Perl (Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau and His World, 2008) joins the select ranks of multivolume arts biographers, among them Hilary Spurling on Matisse and John Richardson on Picasso, with the first in a foundational two-book inquiry into the unusually sunny life and exuberantly radical work of sculptor Alexander Calder. The grandson, nephew, and son of artists, Calder tried to thwart his destiny by studying engineering, a fortunate detour, given the technical finesse of his future constructions. Perl incisively portrays Calder's impressive and intriguing family while tracking the bohemian, coast-to-coast upbringing of this precocious "smiling Buddha" of a boy, marking the genesis of his signature "playful ingenuity" in his youthful passions for birds and animals, toys, tools, and tinkering, skating, dancing, puns, math, science, and theater. Starting out in New York as a magazine and newspaper illustrator, Calder developed his command of line and caricature, a perfect vehicle for his "sardonic, ironic, and comic spirit." In 1920s Paris, this perpetual experimentalist created a remarkably vital miniature circus and powerfully expressive calligraphic wire works, then catalyzed a "kinetic revolution," creating sculptures-in-motion that inspired Marcel Duchamp to coin the word "mobile" to describe them. Graced with 400 photographs, Perl's dynamic and illuminating biography, as buoyant and evocative as Calder's sculptures, concludes with the ebullient and cosmic artist poised for ever more creative adventures and renown. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Perl completes his zestfully expert two-book biography of exuberantly radical sculptor Calder in a volume every bit as scintillating and substantial as the first, linking Calder's early, buoyant creations to his monumental abstract sculptures. Expats Calder; his wife, Louisa, and their two daughters returned to the U.S. at the start of WWII, and their Connecticut farmhouse became headquarters for a passionate community of refugee European artists. As Perl recounts often funny stories of family and friends, he tracks how Calder, "an emancipated creative personality" and "a wizard presiding over a private wonderland," fulfilled his "yearning to do enormous and enormously unconventional works of art," ultimately creating large-scale, transformative public commissions which embody a dramatic evolution of the traditional civic sculptures created by his grandfather and father. Perl's unlimited access to primary materials and phenomenal artistic perception and narrative vitality cohere into a luxuriously detailed, photo-rich, and spirited illumination of Calder's complex temperament; diverse influences, from cosmic forces to Bosch to architecture; "the place of play" in his work; love of language; unnervingly "anarchic" paintings; world travels, and years in postwar rural France. Remaining "superhumanly energetic," even under the strain of Parkinson's disease, Calder, as Perl so incisively and vividly attests, was a soulful and fearless virtuoso who "brought wit, surprise, metaphor, movement, and magic" to art and to life. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

Veteran art critic Jed Perl delivers a highly readable, albeit hefty, first volume of a planned two-volume biography of prodigious American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976). Benefiting from interviews, Calder's early autobiography, and unfettered access to the Calder Foundation's archives and art, Perl portrays an optimistic young man whose skillful hands and curious, nimble mind led to unparalleled innovation in modernist sculpture. Also explored are Calder's parents, artists themselves, who nurtured their son's inventive instincts. By the time Calder was 40, when the book ends, his joyful wire figures and noble sheet metal mobiles were already exhibited regularly in Europe and the US, both at popular world's fairs and in fine art museums. Calder's early career has been the subject of four scholarly publications since 2004. What can Perl contribute? His statement in chapter 12, "Calder abhorred heavy-handedness, in philosophizing as in everything else," reveals much. This is a social chronicle. After a peripatetic yet cosmopolitan upbringing, Calder lived in Paris for many years, immersed in surrealist, Dadaist, and abstractionist avant-gardes. Perl breezes through descriptions of lively relationships with friends, family, colleagues in both Europe and the US. While frustrating digressions clog Perl's lengthy narrative, Calder's creative enthusiasm and proactive mind continually reemerge, driving the book forward. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates; professionals; general readers.--A. Schoenfeld, Pratt InstituteAnn SchoenfeldPratt Institute Ann Schoenfeld Choice Reviews 55:12 August 2018 Copyright 2018 American Library Association.

Review by Choice Reviews

Volume 2 of Alexander Calder's biography, subtitled Conquest of Space, vividly portrays a dynamic and idealistic artist. Yet the book's real value lies in its broader implications. Surveying the years 1940 to the artist's death in 1976, author and art critic Jed Perl's Calder seems an embodiment of the American Century itself. As acceptance of post–WW II American avant-garde art meant a shift in the art world's focus, Calder furthered the institutionalization of American modern art. His ease and optimism, broad-minded nature, network of contacts, and ambition to invent earned him national recognition and international stature. Perl takes the reader behind the scenes with details of major exhibitions; the astounding corporate branding; painted airplanes for Braniff; and the increasing number of commissions for public sculpture. Along with other mid-century artists, Calder believed that inventing new forms—in his case, monumental, abstract stabiles—could influence movement toward a more humane society. Perl, who spent ten years on the biography (see volume 1, Calder: Conquest of Time: The Early Years, 1898–1940, CH, Aug'18, 55-4343), leaves no stone unturned. He succeeds in describing Calder's life on a human scale and the crisply cut sheet metal stabiles as a historic conquest of scale as well as space. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals; general readers.--A. Schoenfeld, Pratt InstituteAnn SchoenfeldPratt Institute Ann Schoenfeld Choice Reviews 58:09 May 2021 Copyright 2021 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Former art critic for the New Republic, Perl draws on letters and papers not previously accessed, plus dozens of interviews, to show how groundbreaking, crowd-pleasing artist Alexander Calder started out. His peregrinations from Roaring Twenties Greenwich Village to interwar Paris, his collaboration with dance and theater artists—all are covered here. Copyright 2017 Library Journal.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Art critic Perl concludes his survey of the life of Alexander Calder (1898–1976) with this second and final volume of an exhaustively researched and profusely illustrated biography. This study charts Calder's rise from top-tier American artist, his mobiles a ubiquitous presence in the 1950s, to an international figure of the 1960s and 1970s completing commissions of monumental outdoor sculptures in Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere globally, these works the very sign of postwar modernism and international-style architecture. Perl does a fine job, too, of introducing readers to the lesser-known Calder: paintings, graphic works, jewelry, and collaborations with avant-garde composers, such as Earle Brown. This surprisingly first full-length biography of Calder (an autobiography was published in the mid-1960s) offers a wealth of detail about the artist's family life, social circle, and voluminous production. For casual readers, there may be both too much and also too little detail, making Calder an enigma within his own story, a challenge to any biographer—a bluff, hearty presence whose inner life and aesthetic ideas nevertheless seem hard to discern. VERDICT For readers interested in Calder and postwar modernism, the wealth of facts, anecdotes, and analysis here will be welcome. [See Prepub Alert, 11/11/19.]—Michael Dashkin, New York Copyright 2020 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Perl (New Art City) delivers a hulking and exhaustively researched biography of American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976), focusing on the first four decades of his life. Calder was born in Philadelphia into a dynasty of artists (his father and paternal grandfather were both sculptors with public works and his mother was a portrait painter). It was only after studying engineering and a stint working in the boiler room of a ship that Calder decided to seriously pursue art. He began as a painter but turned to creating playful kinetic wire sculptures. After a life-changing visit to painter Piet Mondrian's Paris studio in 1930, Calder began making completely abstract sculptures, which caught the attention of art-world heavyweights on both sides of the Atlantic. For the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, his subtly political Mercury Fountain was given prominent placement alongside Picasso's Guernica, showing the world that Calder was more than modernism's playful jester. The biography ends when Calder has entered his "classical style," characterized by large-scale mobiles of arresting complexity. Perl throughout emphasizes Calder's debt to the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly in his ability to blend fine art with everyday objects such as children's toys. Generously illustrated and delivered in vibrant writing (he describes one of Calder's tabletop standing mobiles as "the spiderweb strength and delicacy of an Emily Dickinson poem"), Perl offers what will be without question the authoritative source on the man whom the French affectionately nicknamed le roi du fil de fer—"the wire king." 400 illus. (Nov.) Copyright 2017 Publisher Weekly.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Art critic Perl (Calder: The Conquest of Time) completes his magisterial biography of sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976) with this lavishly illustrated volume, revealing Calder's transformation from playful American master to international figure. First achieving acclaim for his mobiles, Calder later gained notoriety for "monumental objects that celebrate the uprising of the human spirit." Improvising a bohemian life in Connecticut with his wife, Louisa, during WWII, the artist welcomed refugee artists such as Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, and Andre Masson as he sculpted unconventional materials and space into what Calder called "a new form of art." Calder later experimented with art forms in his constellations and sculptures depicting weightlessness (as with The Dancer and On One Knee). The artist gained international acclaim in the 1950s as foreign audiences "saw in his ebullient and sometimes downright idiosyncratic abstractions a bridge between the prewar and the postwar possibilities for abstract art." In the 1960s, Calder received titanic commissions at Spoleto, Montreal's Expo '67, and 1968's Mexico City Olympics for his monumental sculptural pieces. Calder admirers will delight in this exhaustively researched and illuminating retrospective. (Apr.) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Recounts the life and accomplishments of the American sculptor, from his early years studying engineering and his first artistic triumphs in Paris to his emergence as a leader in the abstract avant-garde movement.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

The first biography of America's greatest twentieth-century sculptor, Alexander Calder: an authoritative and revelatory achievement, based on a wealth of letters and papers never before available, and written by one of our most renowned art critics. Alexander Calder is one of the most beloved and widely admired artists of the twentieth century. Anybody who has ever set foot in a museum knows him as the inventor of the mobile, America's unique contribution to modern art. But only now, forty years after the artist's death, is the full story of his life being told in this biography, which is based on unprecedented access to Calder's letters and papers as well as scores of interviews. Jed Perl shows us why Calder was--and remains--a barrier breaker, an avant-garde artist with mass appeal.     This beautifully written, deeply researched book opens with Calder's wonderfully peripatetic upbringing in Philadelphia, California, and New York. Born in 1898 into a family of artists--his father was a well-known sculptor, his mother a painter and a pioneering feminist--Calder went on as an adult to forge important friendships with a who's who of twentieth-century artists, including Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Braque, and Piet Mondrian. We move through Calder's early years studying engineering to his first artistic triumphs in Paris in the late 1920s, and to his emergence as a leader in the international abstract avant-garde. His marriage in 1931 to the free-spirited Louisa James--she was a great-niece of Henry James--is a richly romantic story, related here with a wealth of detail and nuance.      Calder's life takes on a transatlantic richness, from New York's Greenwich Village in the Roaring Twenties, to the Left Bank of Paris during the Depression, and then back to the United States, where the Calders bought a run-down old farmhouse in western Connecticut. New light is shed on Calder's lifelong interest in dance, theater, and performance, ranging from the Cirque Calder, the theatrical event that became his calling card in bohemian Paris to collaborations with the choreographer Martha Graham and the composer Virgil Thomson. More than 350 illustrations in color and black-and-white--including little-known works and many archival photographs that have never before been seen--further enrich the story.