Alexander Calder and the Optimism of Modernism

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

In the view of renowned US author and critic Jed Perl, Alexander Calder remains America’s greatest sculptor. Easel Contributing Editor Morgan Meis talked to Perl about his biography of Calder in 2017, the first volume of which was published in the Fall that year:

Jed Perl and Morgan Meis in The Easel:

“When so many emigres arrived from Europe – artists, writers – the Calders were the go-to people even for those they didn’t already know… In a larger metaphoric sense that is part of what mobiles are about. The Calders loved dancing. On New Year’s Eve, the Calders would entertain their friends at their house in Roxbury, Connecticut, and they would all still be dancing wildly in the early hours. You can see the connection between that social dancing and the idea of a mobile. Mobiles are about a sense of community, a sense of connectedness, the relations between people, the way parts go together.”

Morgan Meis: Jed, I would have bet a fair amount of money that a Calder biography had already been written. Why has it taken so long?

Jed Perl: In the 1950s Calder was friends with a man named William Rogers and talked to him about his writing a book on Calder. Rogers did write the book, but when Calder and his wife saw the typescript they were not pleased. It was very anecdotal, full of stories about Calder and his friends. They rejected it and it was never published. This started a tradition, I think, in the Calder family of being somewhat skeptical about biographies.

As his fame grew, Calder and his family were thrilled by his popularity. But after his death in 1976, the family started to feel that his true position as a pioneer, as an avant- gardist, the sense of the mobile as a great modernist invention was getting lost in the view of Calder as the American amuser, the man with the circus. So I think there was a hesitation about a biography. Would it put too much focus on his ebullient, always upbeat personality and not enough on his work? I think their main objective was to bring to the fore a sense of who he had been in the 30s and 40s, how radical his work had been, how serious and sometimes even sober it was. There had to be a sense of that before they were willing to go ahead with a project like this biography.

MM: Okay, but that background leaves me a bit surprised that you would write a biography about Calder. In your 2005 book New Art City, you use phrases like ‘the seriousness of the Abstract Expressionists.’ To me, Calder represents something playful and perhaps even a little bit frivolous. Having read the first volume of the biography, obviously this is not your take on Calder at all. Can you say a little bit more about how he should be viewed?

JP: Well, three or four things come to mind. There is tremendous wit in Calder’s work, but also a sharp, clear, hard intelligence behind it. For all the playfulness of a mobile there is a sense of something calculated and engineered and sharply thought through that fuels that kind of play.

Alexander Calder Un effet du japonais, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

That really interests me. I wrote a little book, Antoine’s Alphabet, about Watteau, another artist who is often thought of as playful and sort of ‘surface-y.’ One of the things that interested me there was the acuteness of attention and insight that underpinned that lightness. I have always been interested in “the iron fist in the velvet glove.” I think there is a quality of that about Calder.

There are also some larger things that come to life in a biography that excited me here. I have always been fascinated by New York’s art world and, as well, the Parisian art world (which I wrote about in my first book, Paris Without End). Calder of course is someone who at various points spans both worlds. That interested me, that trans-Atlantic story.

I was also interested, as someone who has been a part of this crazy art world for over thirty years, about how serious work – the kind of vanguard vision that Calder was involved with – how that can (or cannot) gain in popularity. In our celebrity-obsessed society can the authentic individual voice to be heard? How can that happen?

Until the late 60’s and even the early 70’s—I will be discussing this in Volume 2 of the biography–large-scale abstract sculpture in public places was practically unheard of in America. I think it was seen as too individualistic—crazily individualistic. When there was talk of putting a Calder outside at Lincoln Centre in the early 60’s there was a whole question as to whether it was going to be permitted. The head of the New York Park Commission, which controlled the spaces outside Lincoln Centre, a man by the name of Newbold Morris, was dead set against abstract sculpture. In 1969 when Calder did a huge piece for Grand Rapids, the reason he was so excited was that here was a fairly large mid-Western city that was actually interested in having a big abstract work! In the 70’s this all changed very dramatically. So Calder is part of the story of the ever-greater acceptance of modernism–and that interests me.

Finally, simply as a biographical subject, Calder is a very rich story–because of all the friendships, the different scenes and places and moments with which he was engaged. There are artists that I adore – Morandi for instance – but I can’t imagine writing a biography of Morandi because he lived this very quiet life.

Alexander Calder Eucalyptus, 1940 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Calder Foundation

Morgan Meis    There is no story there!

Jed Perl       Right! So the Calder story is, in that sense, a real blessing.

MM    That prompts a thought: Is there then a kind of ‘Trojan horse’ characteristic to Calder for you, something about the delightfulness of the work that allows him to smuggle in some of the serious stuff of high modernism and abstraction into sculpture where it might not otherwise have been accepted?

JP      That’s a really interesting way of putting it. Calder, for all his unabashed openness and gift for friendships, was in some ways an elusive figure. One of the things it took me a long time to work through was how to take things he said. Both his parents were artists. His father was this kind of philosophizing, somewhat depressive figure and he grew up with his parents always talking about art and form and colour, having all these aesthetic conversations. Part of the reason he was disinclined, at many points later in his life, to offer disquisitions on his work was that it reminded him of what he hated when he was growing up.

So his statements about his work—even his demeanor about his work–can be somewhat confusing. Sometimes he said completely wacko things. An example comes from a time when he was having a show at the Tate in London, I think in the 60’s. He was living in France at the time – and one of the London newspaper reporters came over to interview him. He said something like—I’m paraphrasing– “Mr Calder, what are you going to in London?” Calder replied, “Well, I am just going to make sure the mobiles are not bumping into each other and then I’ll go home”. You think geez—how silly! But then there are times he can be incredibly thoughtful. As when he talked about being fascinated by the abstract forms of the circus tent when he was in his 20s. He said that to a painter—a very intelligent painter–who was interviewing him.

More here.