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Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940

Jed Perl

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A small plaint, as a starter, against the multivolume biography of the single-volume life. In the nineteenth century, the big sets were usually reserved for the big politicians. Disraeli got seven volumes and Gladstone three, but the lives of the poets or the artists or even the scientists tended to be enfolded within the limits of a single volume. John Forster's life of Dickens did take its time, and tomes, but Elizabeth Gaskell kept Charlotte Bronte within one set of covers, and Darwin got his life and letters presented in one compact volume, by his son. The modern mania for the multivolume biography of figures who seem in most ways 'minor' may have begun with Michael Holroyd's two volumes devoted to Lytton Strachey, who was wonderful and influential but a miniaturist perhaps best treated as such. Strachey, at least, talked a lot and had a vivid sex life. But we are now headed toward a third volume of the life of Bing Crosby, and already have two volumes on Dai Vernon, the master card magician (a master, yes, but of card magic). This season, the life of Alexander Calder, toymaker to the modernist muses, arrives in the first volume of what promises to be two.

No one doubts that Calder is a remarkable artist, and in Jed Perl he has found a scrupulous chronicler. But, as we learn from Perl's seven-hundred-page 'Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940' (Knopf), Calder's is not a particularly dramatic life - he was neither much of a talker nor a prolific lover. In broad strokes, the career follows the customary arc of a modern artist, going from small, animated Parisian experiments, in the twenties, and ending with big, dull American commissions fifty years later - and though we are hungry to get him, we are not perhaps hungry to get him at quite this length. A dubious density of detailing - 'In Paris, Calder had to wait an hour for his luggage, which he had checked through in London' - of the kind inevitable to such multivolume investigations may daunt even the reader who was eager at the start. The greatest British sculptor of the period, Calder's friend and exact contemporary, has, after all, kept his reputation afloat with only a single-volume biography - but this may be a situation where Perl, at least, believes that less is Moore.

Perl, an art critic at The New Republic for more than two decades, has a larger case to make in taking Calder so seriously and at such length. The premise of his project is that Calder is not a minor artist but seems so only because he has never slotted neatly into a fixed story of modernism. Calder fits neither the Clement Greenberg narrative of the inevitability of the abstract nor the later, postmodern narrative of the primacy of the political. He wasn't marginalized; he chose the margins. He just made things. The things he made were in some ways abstract and 'formal' but never scanted the evocative function of art. Although a certain kind of politics can be discerned in his early work, his explicit politics were secondary to his acts of making: the fountain that he made for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the World's Fair in 1937 stood in front of Picasso's 'Guernica,' but no one could have detected in its beautiful patternings of mercury and water a polemical point. For Perl, considering the modern in what may seem 'anti-modernist' terms, rescuing Calder is a way of rescuing the individual imagination from a reading of modern art too narrowly driven by a historical plot.

Happiness, unusually for a modern artist, is a theme in the early Calder, both in his largely serene childhood and in the largely mischievous art he made after. From his birth, in 1898, 'Sandy' had a blessed, if wandering, childhood - in Philadelphia, Arizona, California, and then New York - which haunted him forever; image - echoes of his toys and childhood landscapes remain everywhere in his mature work. 'Calder's embrace of toys, play and the like was further complicated by his having grown up in an artistic household where it was taken for granted that such childish things had a more than childish value,' Perl explains. Calder's background made him one of the few American artists to emerge from a legacy of art-making. Both his father and his grandfather were Philadelphia sculptors. His grandfather Alexander Milne Calder sculpted the statue of William Penn that sits atop the Philadelphia City Hall, all big hat and benevolence, and his father, Stirling, was still more distinguished. Working in a modified Beaux Arts style, he made countless important public decorations, including the figure of George Washington within the Washington Square arch - the same spot where Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan later declared the Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square. Alexander's mother, Nanette, was a fine portrait painter and graphic artist who had studied in Paris at the height of the Post-Impressionist moment. Calder never lost the easy feeling that art was, first of all, artisanal, a thing you did. 'I wasn't brought up,' he once said ruefully, apropos of his artistic background. 'I was framed.' The huge advantage of being born in the business, especially when the business has an aura of glamour or mystery, is that it seems merely like a business. Steph Curry doesn't think that the three-point shot is hard, because his father made it seem easy. It is often better in life not to have a dream but to see when you wake how something is done. For all that, Calder really was a natural. Indeed, his very first juvenilia, a dog and a duck cut from brass sheet metal, which he made around the age of eleven, look completely like Calders, animals reduced to their essence in a manner more caricatural than stylishly sleek - though this is in part because Calder's later work instructed our eyes on how to appreciate childlike modelling of form. And his early graphic advertisements have a jaunty charm that is not at all the work of a beginner.

After earning a degree in mechanical engineering, at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, and spending time at the Art Students League, in New York, he arrived in Paris, in 1926. Even given his precocity, it is startling to discover that the first thing he made in Paris remains perhaps the best thing he did in life. It's the kinetic, wire-and-collage miniature circus, complete with a full cast of characters, from ringmaster to strongman, that has been one of the ornaments of the Whitney Museum since 1971. Living in a studio in the beautiful but out-of-the-way shopping street the Rue Daguerre, in the Fourteenth Arrondissement (not then or now a remotely fashionable or artist-haunted place), he made his circus, creature by creature, out of wire bent with pliers, and powered by everything from springs to balloons.

Calder's circus was not meant to be seen; it was meant to be watched. Calder performed it, unpacking it from suitcases and animating it, and announcing it, in a way that presaged later generations of performance art. (A charming film survives of Calder making his circus run.) The force of his bent-wire caricature of form is still astonishing: no draftsman had a more fluid descriptive line; indeed, Calder's wire portraits are the first really new thing in the caricaturist's craft between Daumier and Dubuffet.

Perl does a terrific job of teasing out the varied sources of Calder's circus, which went through many phases. He shows its origins in the special Parisian artistic world where cabaret culture and circus met high art; reveals compelling antecedents in toys that Calder would have known as a kid; and then documents the circus's return to actual toymaking. (Calder wanted, and eventu ally got, a contract with a Wisconsin toy company to commercialize his ludic inventions.) This tale of the interpenetration of popular entertainment and high art recalls the art historian Jeffrey Weiss's pioneering study of the birth of Cubism in the entanglement of avantgarde and cabaret cultures. Indeed, it's gratifying to see ideas about the nature of modernist innovation that the late MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe and his students, Weiss among them, pioneered a quarter century ago become so widely accepted. Modern artists, they saw, innovate by breaking fixed barriers between popular entertainment and avant-garde experiment, creating a dynamic, circular exchange of forms and meanings, with what begins in a popular idiom altered in an art milieu, only to return to its original realm, transformed. This notion of artistic evolution by the displacement of decorums, once so controversial, now seems commonplace - itself an ironic demonstration of the principle.

Calder went back to America to show his circus as a performance piece, mostly in arty 'society' circles. (Thomas Wolfe's 'You Can't Go Home Again' contains a surprisingly hostile sketch of Calder demonstrating his circus; the ponderous novelist could view the playful artist only as a society dilettante.) Then, on Calder's return to France, he was the subject of one of the telling episodes in the long history of Franco-American creative misunderstanding. Sometime in October of 1930, Calder performed his circus for a sober audience of advanced artists, including Mondrian and Leger, who found in it none of the antic charm that his American audiences had but, rather, intimations of a language of abstract order and kinetic movement. To eyes for whom the circus as a subject of serious art was self-evident, but for whom the idea of kinetic, encompassing performance attached to any artistic enterprise was new, Calder's natural preoccupations seemed thrilling, even radical. His ascent among the Parisians seems to date to this performance, and led to a sudden elevation in his stature that appears to have been as bewildering to him as it was welcome. The New York salon ornament became, in a breath, a Parisian visionary.

Not long afterward, at Calder's first gallery show in Paris, Leger, a magisterial figure in the French avant-garde, described Calder's work as 'Erik Satie illustrated by Calder.' He went on:

Why not? It's serious without seeming to be....His need for fantasy broke the connection; he started to 'play' with his materials: wood, plaster, iron wire, especially iron wire... The wire stretches, becomes rigid, geometrical - pure plastic - it is the present era.

Perl rightly says that 'it's impossible to overstate the significance of Leger's words,' both for Calder's reputation and for the insight they provide into how his art was reimagined in France. Play had become pure plastic art, a radical form of abstraction. Calder's circus is an American toy set to a French experimental melody.

This double movement - first toward mere play, then toward real power - is in part a classic cycle in the making of modern art, reversing Marx's 'first time as tragedy, the second time as farce' dictum. What begins as a jeu becomes, under sufficiently imaginative scrutiny, the apparent means to more radical artistic advance. Just as the naive Sunday paintings and hothouse landscapes of Henri Rousseau had, in the years before the First World War, provided models of gravely simplified form to the Cubists - especially potent because of their obviousness, the absence of theory that let your theory walk right in - so Calder's little circus suggested a new world of absolute animation, and the creation of a mobile, energized abstract space. Ideas that were still uncomfortably vague in the Parisian mind - about the addition of movement to art - seemed present in the simple, childlike joke of the performance. This clearly delighted Calder, since it meant that he was being taken seriously; it was also the case that, like any American in Paris, he was being cast in the role of an inspired naïf. It was not the favorite role of any American, although Calder - who in some little part was an inspired naif, a maker first and a thinker second - didn't entirely mind playing it.

The real advance in his work, however, came through more intimate exposure to two artists: the great exiles Piet Mondrian, who was present at the gallery show that night, and Joan Miro. It was in Mondrian's studio that Calder was first exposed to a credible utopianism - not of vague half-comic abstractions about the fourth dimension but of white light and primary colors. Mondrian's abstraction, like Calder's, drew from the artisanal practice of decorative arts. The furniture of Rietveld anticipated the painting of Mondrian. The purity of Mondrian's vision spoke to Calder all the more deeply for being so entirely rooted in things made, not things imagined.

From Miro he took more directly a visual vocabulary - the biomorphic streamlined forms, at once abstract and animal, that would be the basis of his art-making for the rest of his life. To be sure, that language of simplified form still instantly recognizable as life was part of the common currency of Surrealism. But Miro's sense of mission (and, perhaps, his alignment both with Catalan folk art and with Spanish Republican virtue) lent his work an authority that gave permission for Calder to be himself. Influence among artists works in many ways, but usually the most potent is to provide not a series of patterns but a set of permissions - confidence that what one is already inclined to do is not trivial. Calder had been making abstract animals since he was a child; Miro showed him that abstract animals were sufficient for major art. (It's curious that Calder never seems to have been much impressed with Constantin Brancusi's work, though Brancusi's streamlined seals were closer in their way to his own preoccupations than the works of any other artist.) Calder became, and remained for the rest of his life, one of a rare kind: the American imaginatively located in Paris, seen as very French in New York, as very New York in France.

Many touching pages are devoted to Calder's courtship of his wife, Louisa, whom he adored but - oddly, given her generally placid and 'philosophical' (his word) temperament - nonetheless nicknamed Medusa, and not only because of the beautiful way her long hair curled into snakes when stirred by an ocean breeze. He was excited to cast her in a Greek mythological part, it seems, as a way of explaining to himself the intensity of his sexual infatuation with her. He once drew an uncharacteristically raw sketch of her as a serpent herself, wrapped around a tree limb, her hair alive with snakes, with a figure recognizably Calder fleeing from her. It's half a joke, but only half. He never stopped calling her Medusa, and though it eventually became an accepted nickname (Calder's father, a few years later, addressed a letter to 'Dear Sand + Medusa'), it helps italicize the passion that fuelled their marriage, which lasted for forty-five years.

It was only on his return to America, in the mid-thirties, and in his work of the early forties that what one thinks of as Calder's greatest contribution to the language of modern form emerges: the Calder mobiles. The Paris Calders of the mid-thirties move but are still often motorized, and so were part of the machine aesthetic that carried with it both longing for an industrial world and bewilderment by it. 'A romantic adulation of the machine' was how his friend the art historian J. J. Sweeney put it. Now, settling into his home and studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he would stay for decades, Calder began to make work at once delicate and robust, spheres and half-circles and fish shapes bound to the end of just-curved wire lines, which turned with wind and air and the motion of the earth. Perl is surely right to see in these a response to the American hills on which they were mounted: 'The two great shapes, one red, one black, seem positively hungering to catch the wind, so that they'll be spun around ....The gallery in Paris has been traded for a hill in Connecticut. Calder's forms have relinquished a certain self-consciousness.' The mobiles 'are waiting for a windstorm, so that the shapes can careen.'

But there was nothing simply nostalgic or pastoral about Calder's formal language, which remained inherently modern. Another emigre artist who became a close friend, Saul Steinberg, once said of Calder that he was 'a particular American type: the dogged tinkerer. We saw in him the face of the man who is always working on a perpetual motion machine, which he then sends to the patent office.' A marriage between the Wright brothers and the wind, between the barn engineer's dream of a perpetual-motion machine and a rural weathervane come upon by accident - the two poles of industrialage form and American pastoral feeling are what give his best work its tension and make its movement matter.

Perl does a good job telling this story. He's excellent running, so to speak, northsouth. He can construct a handsome and uncluttered opening sentence - 'In the dozen months after the Motomar left New York Harbor in March 1930, Calder became an abstract artist and a married man' - and he can offer a solid book-in-a-phrase sentence, too: 'If Calder's first encounters with Miro, a year earlier, had suggested that an artist might delve into the world of the phantasmagorical and absurd to which the Surrealists had laid claim while remaining entirely himself, Mondrian showed Calder how a near total transformation of the nature of art could be mounted as a matter of personal expression, a sort of revolution of the self conducted within the self and for oneself.'

Perl's lateral movement is less impressive. When he steps out of narrative to place Calder's work in a broader context - beyond the immediate art-historical circles, which he knows well - he often makes puzzling connections. Talking about Calder's role as an American in Paris, he goes on at length about Henry James, though James's kind of transplantation - fixed, and longing for the ancient and implanted permanence of Europe - couldn't have been more unlike that of the Calder generation, who saw in Paris ferment and fizz. (Matthew Josephson's 'Life Among the Surrealists' is the indispensable text on this moment in Paris, with American empiricism confronting French systematization.) When he wants to praise Calder's high moment in the early forties, when the mobiles matured as works of complete authority, he praises it as a 'classical moment,' and cites Charles Rosen on the Classical style - but Rosen is writing about how a collective style is made and shared, as with the German composers of the mid-eighteenth century, or the Italian artists of the cinquecento. What Calder achieved was a high moment within the arc of an individual life, quite a different thing, and 'classical' only in a very woolly sense.

Out of a commendable distaste for the opacities of artspeak, Perl insists on a simplicity of language that can sometimes spill over into the fatuous. So, deciding at the end, persuasively, that Calder's art is rooted in play, he says, 'Calder's classicism grew out of his most basic feelings as a person who both early and late, as a child and as a man, knew how to play.' True enough; we all agree that Calder is playful, and that one element in his work is its vindication of childhood. But there are as many ways of imagining play in modern thought as there are of imagining Eros. The special qualities of playfulness in Calder - his love of soft water and small wind, of the safe outdoors, of imaginary animals easily tamed - belong to a distinctive thread of modern art, the kind that William Empson, in his great discussion of childhood and play in the 'Alice' books, called 'the child as swain,' reanimating nature with unconscious poetic wisdom more than with innocence. That's the way Calder plays. This vein puts Calder at one with the Prokofiev of 'Peter and the Wolf' or the tongue-in-cheek tales and drawings of Maurice Sendak. Indeed, 'Where the Wild Things Are' isn't a bad composite title for all of Calder's work, with the understanding, shared by both the illustrator and the sculptor, that the wild things are not that wild when stylized and shaped in your own distinctive hand. Art - it is the most natural metaphor of the circus lover - is the confident child's way of taming the elements, and making them behave.

The larger argument, on which the book is admirably staked, is that Calder is a major artist, kept from center stage by an art history unduly concerned with 'advances' and inventions and directions. Yet Calder's art, magical as it is, is hard to make major in the only respect that matters, as supplying the renewed sense of possibility, of something as yet unseen, that some artists perpetually provide when we return to them. An artist like Florine Stettheimer, so beautifully revived recently at the Jewish Museum, is minor in the same way that Cole Porter is: they are artists who play contentedly with their own rules, without worrying too much about whether or not this is really the major league. Calder, at least after the first blossoming of the circus, is, by choice, so enfolded within the larger story of modernist art that we can't help judging him as a character within its drama. Largeness of ambition and restlessness in pursuit of novelty seem, however enforced, essential to our idea of that kind of artistic majority.

No artist's career illustrates the traps of modern fame for an artist more clearly, or the risk of having a style become a brand; stretches of the second volume, obliged to take account of the immobile mobiles and stasis-filled stabiles that Calder churned out in later life, are likely to make dispiriting reading. The invention and imagination of the thirties slowed to a set of stereotyped, blandly biomorphic solutions. The early sense of play gave way to dulled-down, chunk-of-metalin- a-plaza heaviness. (As Geoffrey T. Hellman wrote in these pages, in 1960, Calder's 'works were now dangling importantly from the ceilings of banks and air terminals, as well as from the necks and earlobes of ladies in France and Connecticut.') There is no late period in Calder; just a last period, which, as most often happens, recapitulates the high period more sluggishly, in his case literally: motors had to be attached to some of the mobiles to get them moving, and the ones that did move are enwrapped by protective guards and curators and conservators who discourage them from being set in motion at all. (It might be better for the artist's legacy to let them have more wear and tear, live a few years less and spin a few feet more.) Calder, a hard-drinking man in a hard-drinking generation, must have had his own demons. In that video of the circus at work, charming as it is, Mrs. Calder has a very fixed and onesided smile as she watches him.

Of course, part of the comedy of art is that critics who have been saying the same thing for twenty years demand that artists find something new to offer every time an exhibition opens. Or perhaps it's merely that unself-consciousness and self-satisfaction are developmental stages in some artists' lives: the enviable concentration of someone who works only for his own pleasure becomes the annoying complacency of someone who thinks that the same solution will always please. Major or minor, or somewhere between, Calder's American readiness - that perpetual-motion-machine man's confidence in his own invention - is comforting, cheering, even in its repetitions. Major or minor, it moves.

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