A physics of gossip? On Jed Perl’s new biography of Alexander Calder

Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years, 1898–1940, by Jed Perl; Alfred A. Knopf, $50/£35 (hardcover)

One doesn’t make it five pages into Jed Perl’s new biography of Alexander Calder before getting something close to Perl’s theory of biography itself: ‘There is a physics of biography, one that involves the facts and how they are related to one another. And there is a metaphysics of biography, especially the biographies of creative spirits, that involves determining how the facts of the artist’s life somehow fuel the imaginative life.’ It’s a bit perplexing as to what Perl is after here. By ‘imaginative life’ are we meant to assume Perl means the artist’s work – presumably the most direct manifestation of the artist’s own imaginative efforts? Or is it meant to indicate something broader, a ‘sensibility’, say, that goes beyond the dry ‘physics’ of an artist’s life to get at something like the spirit of his time? Are we to learn something about Calder’s work by learning about Calder the man? Or are we to learn about the ‘age of Calder’?

I’m not sure Perl is clear on the answer himself, or indeed if it’s a question he feels needs posing, at least on the evidence of Calder, The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898–1940, which remains, to use Perl’s own terms, at the level of biographical physics, and rarely rises to anything like a metaphysics, either about Calder or his age.

Could this all be Calder’s own fault? Alexander ‘Sandy’ Calder is a curious giant in the menagerie of modern art. A figure at once immensely visible (what childhood of the past 50 years has not been introduced to, or produced, a variation on Calder’s greatest contribution to the history of art: the mobile?) and admired (by giants of modernism, eg Cocteau, Duchamp, Miró) and yet, oddly, without acolytes.

Calder’s mobiles, his Cirque Calder (1926–31), even his wonderfully deft and economical wire works have not posed challenges for subsequent generations of artists. Not in the way that a Constantin Brancusi or an Alberto Giacometti remain artists with whom a young sculptor often must contend – or avoid. Calder’s greatest work, by contrast, requires acknowledgement, even admiration, but no one today is wrestling with it, or crediting it with opening up new horizons of artistic practice, or damning Calder for getting there first, or doing it better.

Could it be that Calder the man just isn’t all that fascinating? Perl’s early chapters on the Calder family – on A. Stirling and Nanette, Calder’s very accomplished artist parents, and on the family’s moves from East Coast (Philadelphia) to West (Pasadena) and back (Croton-on-Hudson) following Stirling’s career – on Calder’s exposure to a wide range of top talents at the turn of the century and on Calder’s education at the Stevens Institute of Technology and at the Art Students League in New York, all combine into a dense portrait of a young artist who appears more or less at ease with the advancing artistic life that in many ways was destined to become his own.

Then there’s Paris, where Calder falls in with the right crowd right away, makes important friends (Duchamp), gains recognition and all through the interwar years never sheds the impression that he is the big American boy, the ‘man cub’, a title that Calder’s father had given to one of his own early sculptural portraits of his son. Calder’s peers in the 1920s and 30s may have been fascinated by him, but on the page, in Perl’s hands, exactly what animates Calder and his own ‘imaginative life’ is difficult to parse. Mostly it sounds as if Calder was affable and enjoyable to be around, and though he certainly lived the life of a bohemian artist abroad (with a little beer money from dad to help things along), Calder’s life comes across as rather charmed: ‘On the boulevard Arago…,’ Perl writes, ‘Sandy and Louisa plunged back into the rounds of entertainment that had always characterized their life in Paris.’

On the same page, Perl tells how Matisse and Duchamp show up one night, and that ‘it’s unclear, but Henry Miller may have also been among the group’. Unclear? With numerous statements of this sort salting the pages of Calder, one feels the need to ask Perl if there is a physics of gossip as well.

From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview

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