Perl Meets Calder
In the first volume of his definitive biography of Alexander
Calder, art critic Jed Perl shows how a sculptor conquered time.
BY DONNA SEAMAN
Jed Perl is a vivid, nimble, expert, and entrancing art crit- ic. For 20 years, he wrote for the New Republic and now contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books.
Perl is the author of the vibrant and encompassing New Art
City: Manhattan at Mid-Century (2005) and the lithe and
provocative Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World (2008).
He now brings his gifts for portraying artists within dynamically rendered contexts both personal and cultural to the first
comprehensive biography of the master modernist sculptor
Alexander Calder. Booklist was curious about what inspired
Perl to undertake this exciting but demanding endeavor, and
the author was gracious enough to satisfy our curiosity. For
our review of Calder: The Conquest of Time, see p. 13.
SEAMAN: Has your experience making art influenced the
way you write about art and artists?
PERL: I can’t imagine writing about
the visual arts if I hadn’t had some
hands-on experience in the studio.
Although I haven’t painted in more
than 30 years, something of the visceral experience of the artist’s life—the
physicality of the materials, the struggle
to make forms and colors speak—has
remained with me to this day. That’s
been very important in writing about
Calder, who made his materials sing.
SEAMAN: In Antoine’s Alphabet (2008), you declare that
the early eighteenth-century French painter Antoine Wat-
teau is your favorite artist. How did Calder become the artist
you’ve devoted so much thought, work, and time to?
PERL: Our attractions to artists are mysterious. What I
love in Calder is the expansiveness of his vision; the un-abashedness with which he approached both his art and his
life. But Watteau’s personality may be a little closer to my
own, maybe a little more contemplative. One of the great
things about spending time with art and artists is that they
touch different sides of our personalities and experience.
I’ve loved spending nearly a decade with Calder’s wonderfully optimistic spirit.
SEAMAN: You’ve had unprecedented access to Calder’s letters
and other materials. How did that come about?
PERL: It takes time to develop trust. For many years now,
scholars have been exploring the extraordinary resources
of the Calder Foundation, in New York. Sandy Rower, the
artist’s grandson and president of the foundation, responded
to something I wrote many years ago about Calder and
his great friendships with the painter Fernand Léger and
the architect Alvar Aalto. Sandy and I started to talk, and
one thing led to another. The Calder family has been enormously supportive of my desire to see how the art and the
life really fit together. It’s been a wonderful adventure to see
Calder whole, and the family and the foundation have given
me access to everything I need.
SEAMAN: What was the greatest challenge in synthesizing all
the material your research yielded into a flowing narrative?
PERL: Biography is an art, not a science. But it’s an art
that’s grounded in facts. The challenge is figuring out what
to do with all the facts. For the first couple of years I was
working on this life of Calder, I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t
know how to evaluate all the facts. The breakthrough came
after a few years of work. I began to develop what I can only
describe as a sort of sixth sense about Calder—of how he
responded to the world, how his mind worked, how he processed experiences. I figured out how to match his moves as
a man and an artist with my own moves as a writer. At that
point, the pieces began to fall into place.
SEAMAN: Can you offer a key to the subtitle, The Conquest
PERL: Calder’s essential modern invention was the mobile, which moved
sculpture into what many people have
described as the fourth dimension, that of
time. Calder once said that in the 1920s,
when he was starting out, there was a lot
of talk about movement in art—about
the time element in art—but not much
was being done about it. With his mobiles, Calder did something about it,
something very big. He conquered time.
SEAMAN: Your biography ends at a pivotal moment, leaving
unilluminated the second half of the artist’s life. Will there be
a second volume, and if so, why do you need two books to do
Calder’s story justice?
PERL: The second volume—which begins in 1940 and
ends with Calder’s death, in 1976—will appear two years
from now. This is such an enormous story, so full of hard
work, passionate friendships, and fascinating adventures on
both sides of the Atlantic, that a single volume can’t contain it. The second volume will begin with the war years
and Calder’s triumphant 1943 retrospective at the Museum
of Modern Art and move through
his ever-growing fame in the post-war period. By the 1960s, Calder’s
monumental stabiles were becoming part of the urban landscape in
both the U.S. and Europe. It was
Calder, more than any other artist of the twentieth century, who
proved that the most radical artistic forms can touch the hearts and
minds of a broad, heterogeneous
public. Even as he aged, there was
something ageless about Calder.
To the end, he remained the
avant-garde optimist he had been
in the 1920s.