Calder: The Early Years



In « Calder, the Conquest of time »  Jed Perl, the eminent art critic, has quite obviously spent many years researching the life and work of the great sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976). Indeed, this volume of over seven hundred pages, with hundreds of footnotes, only covers the first forty two years of a very active artist but unfortunately, I cannot say that I have a clear idea of what Calder might have been like as a man after reaching the end of volume one...

Born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, into a very interesting but complicated artistic family, his father the sculptor of great repute Stirling Calder of Scottish descent and his mother a Jewish portrait painter, Nanette Lederer Calder, he wrote « I wasn’t brought up, I was framed. ».

Calder’s parents were reticent about an artistic career for their only son, having had their fair share of financial ups-and-downs, so instead he went to the Stevens Institute of technology in Hoboken to study mechanical engineering, having always had a precocious knack for making and repairing things.

Sandy, as he was called, was large in every sense of the word : a massive baby who became an imposing, emotionally expansive but very good-natured man : his face « always wrapped up in that same mischievous, juvenile grin ».
He got his degree in 1919 and held down several uninspiring engineering jobs before a trip to Guatemala which sealed his fate : in 1922, Calder moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League, studying painting rather briefly with Thomas Hart Benton, George Luks, Kenneth Hayes Miller, 
and John Sloan.

The most interesting section of this book surely should have concerned Calder’s move to Paris in 1926. Calder didn’t know Paris (although his elder sister Peggy had been born there during one of his parents’ arty trips) and had decided to come on a whim when he heard from fellow artists at the Arts Students League that it was a really fun place to be : he immediately fell in love with the architecture and light as soon as he arrived and would happily divide his time between the States and France until 1933.

To be sure, Montparnasse was in full swing in the roaring twenties and the absolute centre of Bohemia and the Avant-garde for any artist worthy of that name : Calder installed himself right in the middle of it all in a studio at 22 rue Daguerre and, we imagine, as a young, amusing, attractive unmarried man, must have had more than one or two adventures there but Mr Perls, sadly as far as I am concerned, doesn’t seem interested in the tittle-tattle of Calder’s humdrum existence but concentrates on all the artists he came across and befriended : Miro, Arp, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, Mondrian, Hélion, Nogushi, Cocteau, Hayter etc,etc...The lengthy list goes on and on.

Easygoing and practical-minded, Calder was one of the few American visual artists who established himself in 1920s Paris, an era legendary for its aesthetic ferment and he also possessed a considerable intellect and an extremely playful sense of humour, a trait which hardly comes across in this book. His miniature circus, « le cirque Calder » and the live « performances » he famously gave thanks to it, would probably not have existed without

Paris, although he had already shown a fascination for the circus subject in New York : as soon as he arrived on the Left bank, he set about visiting, almost daily according to his diary, cabarets ( he made a marvellous wire figure of the hip-wiggling Josephine Baker dancing at the « Folies Bergère »), the cirque Medrano or the cirque d’hiver which were favourites with artists, and of course, the cafés of Montparnasse, with a particular fondness for the Dôme, doing his documentary « research » : he was soon nicknamed the “king of wire” for his cleverly constructed three-dimensional renderings and, as we all know, invented the « mobile » and later, of course, « the stabile ». He attended painting classes at Colorossi’s and la Grande Chaumière and attempted to learn French. He also mixed large quantities of white wine and red wine in the cafés of Montparnasse : « the red wine makes you go to sleep, the whitemakes you jump- this way you keep on an even keel. »

He had left New York an unknown and not terribly good painter and illustrator and would return in 1933 an international star of the art world. During his Paris years, Calder showed extensively in France, Germany, England and America., thanks to his new artist friends in Paris, and rapidly became a highly recognizable artist because of his unique contributions to the various shows. As one of the most experimental sculptors of the 1930s and ’40s, he was involved with the « Abstraction-Création » group and with Surrealism although he never joined any group in particular, always remaining very much a lone wolf.

Calder met his future wife, Louisa James (1905-1996), a great-niece of
author Henry James and philosopher William James and from a highly affluent family, on the crossing to the States on the
de Grasse in June 1927.They would marry in Concord, Massachussetts in January1931 and eventually have two daughters. But the young couple headed off to Paris a few days after the wedding and spent several years more living the bohemian life in the city as well as travelling around Europe visiting their artist friends. Calder and Louisa returned to America in 1933 to settle in a farmhouse they had purchased

in Roxbury, Connecticut where Calder built himself a magnificent barn-like studio. This is where volume one leaves us...

If you are lucky enough to find it, « an autobiography with pictures » by Alexander Calder and Jean Davidson, published in 1966, will give you better idea of the individual, who was apparently boisterous, funny and charming but comes across as rather stern and serious in Mr Perl’s opus. And why not try his
Pourquoi j’habite Paris » of 1931 if you can find it at a « bouquiniste » along the Seine? The 2009 exhibition catalogue « Calder : les Années
» (Centre Pompidou/Whitney) will fill you in visually but if you are after a very serious, very very complete view of Calder’s early life and work, Mr Perl’s book is surely a must in any library. 

Reviewed by Jane Roberts

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