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Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years by Jed Perl, Alfred A. Knopf, US $55.00, Pp 704, October 2017, ISBN 978-0307272720

Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976) was surely one of the greatest twentieth-century sculptors. Born into a family of artists, Calder is the inventor of the mobile which is an American contribution to modern art. Calder’s father was a sculptor and his mother a painter. He was brought up in Philadelphia, California and New York. He married free-spirited Louisa James – a great grand-niece of Henry James. In Calder, Jed Perl shows why Calder remains an avant-garde sculptor even forty years after his death. After spending time in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1920s, Calder went to the Left Bank of Paris during the Depression and then back to the United States and settle on a farmhouse in Western Connecticut.

Jed Perl says that Calder joined science with sensibility and the engineered with the empathetic in his art. Very few artists had ever done that before, and no artist since Leonardo da Vince had studied as closely not only the poetics but also the mechanics of forms moving through the air. The idea of reimagining the scientific method in a more intuitive and lyrical spirit certainly interested the Surrealists and Calder may have been emboldened by discussions going on among his Surrealist friends and their friends in the 1930s. For Calder, physics was not a matter of theories in a textbook – he certainly grasped the theories – but of sensations registered through the immediacy of nature. Physics was physicality. It was as simple as that. Physics was not something he picked up as an adult, as was the case with some of his Surrealist friends. Calder had been grappling with the fundamentals of physics since he was a boy.

Calder’s art, an abstraction of life’s everyday dynamics, is absolutely autobiographical, just so long as we understand that this autobiography, to use the words of Joyce, “finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak.” What remains is Calder’s abiding optimism, his belief that lightness and heaviness and the one and the many can live if not in harmony then in a disharmony that is, after its own fashion, harmonious. Jed Perl says that that optimism is the key to Calder’s enduring classicism, for classicism is always inherently optimistic, a conviction that the center will indeed hold, that things, no matter how complex they become, will not finally fall apart.

Jed Perl says that, in the years around 1940, Calder was embracing this extraordinary optimism even as World War II was erupting and his and Louisa’s Europe seemed headed for the abyss. To make such an affirmation at such a tragic time was an act of artistic heroism. That optimism – a classicist’s steadying optimism – sustained Calder through the war years. The same optimism emboldened him after the war when he and Louisa found themselves confronting the entirely different challenges that came with an ever-growing international reputation. Calder embraced his unassailable position without letting it go to his head.

Calder is a comprehensive and authentic biography of one of the leading sculptors of the twentieth century. Jed Perl, a brilliant art critique, has done meticulous research and used previously little or unknown primary sources like Calder’s letters and scores of original interviews. Calder carries more than 350 colored and black-and-white illustrations. Many of them were previously little or unknown. Perl sheds light on several unexplored aspects of Calder’s life and works. Calder is important to understand the life and works of not only Calder but also the history of, and trends in, modern Western sculpture.

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