Circus Master

An equestrian act from Alexander Calder’s Cirque Calder, 1926–31, wire, cloth, wood, cardboard, paint, rhinestones, and thread. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Calder Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Sheldan C. Collins.

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Alexander “Sandy” Calder (1898–1976) was a rare breed, an American artist unscathed by alcoholism, poverty, depression, divorce, or bad reviews, a sculptor celebrated internationally for both domestic-size and monumental works. Calder’s friend Joan Miró described him as a “burly man with the soul of a nightingale,” and that unlikely counterbalance of the physical and the lyrical characterized his work and seemed to ballast his life.

For a biographer, such a placid, even-tempered existence poses dramatic problems. Terse and quirky, the artist’s own Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures (1966) poked fun at the sanctity of biographic records by privileging casual, sometimes bawdy anecdotes over key aesthetic decisions and events. Avoiding artist statements and in-depth interviews, the plainspoken, blunt Calder clearly despised pretense, interpretation, and theory, treating his art as a simple matter of fact. The mobiles moved, the stabiles stayed put.

Although getting inside the head of this stubbornly tightlipped subject seems impossible, Jed Perl’s massive first volume of a projected two-volume biography does everything else, tracking every art historical lead, social encounter, and possible influence to unravel the mystery behind the artist’s two significant formal breakthroughs: the wire sculptures and the mobiles. In so doing, the biography cuts a fascinating swath through much of twentieth-century art history, while also considering subtopics such as the European avant-garde’s interest in caricature, masks, and puppetry. Calder clearly did not arise in a vacuum, and Perl—an art historian and former critic for the New Republic—chronicles the host of art movements, pundits, books, pictures, objects, and experiences that guided the artist along.

Calder’s grandfather and father were successful sculptors, his mother, a painter. Raised among artists and art-talk, Sandy was indifferent to art as a child, forever griping about being used as a model by his parents. He preferred to tinker with the toys he made by hand. Perl digs into the early years, showing a refreshing openness to the works of the elder Calders. Despite their traditional styles of art-making, Sandy’s parents were well versed in the avant-garde, persistently mulling over and arguing about new movements and ideas. As Perl explains, “The avant-garde was always a part of Calder’s world, even if his parents frequently perceived it as an irritant or a threat.”

In 1906 the health issues of his father, Stirling, brought the family to the West. After a stint on an Arizona ranch, they settled for three years in Pasadena, California, where Sandy’s parents became members of a small artist community steeped in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Perl finds analogues for Sandy’s precocious boyhood creations of animal toys and kinetic devices like windmills in the turn-of-the-century toy-making manuals for children that his artsy parents are likely to have provided. Perl points to the stylistic similarities of the illustrations in the “Rapid Sketching of Animals” section of a 1904 instructional manual to Calder’s drawings in his first book, Animal Sketching (1926). Whether Calder actually saw these texts is irrelevant; the stylizations of his drawings and wire sculptures graphically relate to the curves and spirals of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts aesthetic. Even closer to home, Calder later stated his appreciation of the “fantastic and flamboyant” Fountain of Energy created by his father for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition—a work featuring mermaids, mermen, and a triumphant horse and rider. Its monumental presence perhaps planted the seed for Sandy’s later interest in massive public sculptures.

Sandy bided his time before taking up the family profession, attending the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and working at scattered odd jobs following his graduation in 1919. After a mysterious pep talk by an unnamed colleague at a logging camp in Washington State, Sandy rather impulsively found his calling. He went back East to enroll in the Art Students League of New York, where he quickly won praise from teachers John Sloane and George Luks, and fell in with bon vivant artists like John Graham, Alexander Brook, and Peggy Bacon.

Calder soon moved to a studio in Paris, where he was exposed to the vibrant expat cultural scene. A friend from the Art Students League, Clay Spohn—later one of the founders of the California assemblage movement—saw his experiments in wire sculpture and egged him on. In 1929, Cirque Calder, an ingenious, whimsical set of mechanical wire sculptures, hand-activated by Calder in intimate performances, took the elite art world of Paris by storm. Artists like Cocteau, Léger, and Miró, along with tastemakers like Janet Flanner, were captivated by Calder’s manipulations of small doll-like wire acrobats, clowns, and exotic animals enacting choreographed stunts and amusements. In this prescient piece of interactive art, a metallic elaboration of the wooden Humpty Dumpty Circus he had played with in his youth, the man-child Calder sprawled on the floor to move and manipulate the sparsely dressed figures, playing ringmaster, announcing the various acts in his execrable French.

Perl’s text chronicles Calder’s encounters over the years with a surprisingly broad cast of characters. As he went back and forth from Paris to his American home in Connecticut, he met and befriended artists Frederick Kiesler, Charles Howard, Jean Hélion, and Isamu Noguchi; composers Virgil Thomson and Edgard Varèse; dancer Ruth Page; curator-pundits Lincoln Kirstein, James Thrall Soby, and Chick Austin; and art dealer Julien Levy. He also connected with British artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and John Piper. (Only the American novelist Thomas Wolfe took a dislike, satirizing Calder in You Can’t Go Home Again as the vacuous character Piggy Logan, whose “celebrated circus of wire dolls” entertained society types while the Depression loomed.) Calder’s wife, Louisa—a grandniece of the writer Henry James—emerges as the artist’s stalwart assistant, seen in films of Cirque Calder at a turntable, manipulating the performance’s soundtrack with deft nonchalance.

Despite his early success, Calder had grander ambitions. The ideas buzzing in modernist Paris led him in 1930 to the studio of Piet Mondrian, where he was hit hard by the force and serious playfulness of the master abstract painter’s work. Perl sets the scene for this conversion experience, describing the light-filled studio as a kind of all-white installation activated by the paintings’ blocks of energized color. Calder’s ensuing ventures into minimalist painting are surprisingly austere and conceptually tough. His 1931 exhibition of sculpture at Galerie Percier featured works whose collective titles—“Spheres,” “Arcs,” “Densities,” “Stopped Movements,” “Volumes,” and “Vectors”—evoke, as Perl puts it, “nothing less than a grammar of Calder’s art.” For Perl, Calder’s shift into mechanical sculpture and then mobiles was the further “unleashing” of his visceral take on Mondrian’s abstraction. In their celebration of straight lines, solids, and curves, the works have a profound formal purity, not devoid of romanticism. In their movements, Calder’s mobiles suggest a kind of carving out of sculptural space. Extrapolated from the natural world, they reference wind-swept foliage, sparks of fire, and splashing rain as well as planetary orbits, magnetic fields, and nuclear motion.

While packed with information, the biography is best when Perl steps back to appreciate Calder’s work, particularly how it addresses a social arena. Originally sited across from Picasso’s Guernica in the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, Calder’s Mercury Fountain (now at the Fondació Joan Miró in Barcelona) is a glass and steel structure of plates on which the liquid metal flows, drips, and ripples. An antenna bobs above it with the name of a Spanish mining town spelled out in wire, designating the source of the mercury dredged from the earth. Perl praises the work as a companion piece to Guernica that promoted the Spanish Republic at a crucial time in its existence. The biography’s first volume ends with the emergence of a “classical style” that, somewhat paradoxically, depends on asymmetry and what Calder called the “disparity” of his sculptural elements.

Near the end of this long book, Perl zeroes in on the optimism inherent in the artist’s every impulse: “a conviction that the center will indeed hold, that things, no matter how complex they become, will not finally fall apart.” In today’s crumbling, overburdened culture, that conviction seems something very much worth holding onto.

At Calder’s memorial service, the playwright Arthur Miller remembered once earnestly holding forth to Sandy about the serious beauty of his mobiles: “And of course when I told him my discoveries he looked up from his anvil and said, ‘Ercaberk.’” For Calder, all verbal interpretations were gobbledygook; the truth was in the motion. Maybe so, but Perl manages brilliantly to translate Calder’s private language, relating the connections, interests, and whims that produced art that continues to sing.