cover image Calder: The Conquest of Time

Calder: The Conquest of Time

Jed Perl. Knopf, $50 (704p) ISBN 978-0-307-27272-0

Perl (New Art City) delivers a hulking and exhaustively researched biography of American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976), focusing on the first four decades of his life. Calder was born in Philadelphia into a dynasty of artists (his father and paternal grandfather were both sculptors with public works and his mother was a portrait painter). It was only after studying engineering and a stint working in the boiler room of a ship that Calder decided to seriously pursue art. He began as a painter but turned to creating playful kinetic wire sculptures. After a life-changing visit to painter Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930, Calder began making completely abstract sculptures, which caught the attention of art-world heavyweights on both sides of the Atlantic. For the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, his subtly political Mercury Fountain was given prominent placement alongside Picasso’s Guernica, showing the world that Calder was more than modernism’s playful jester. The biography ends when Calder has entered his “classical style,” characterized by large-scale mobiles of arresting complexity. Perl throughout emphasizes Calder’s debt to the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly in his ability to blend fine art with everyday objects such as children’s toys. Generously illustrated and delivered in vibrant writing (he describes one of Calder’s tabletop standing mobiles as “the spiderweb strength and delicacy of an Emily Dickinson poem”), Perl offers what will be without question the authoritative source on the man whom the French affectionately nicknamed le roi du fil de fer—“the wire king.” 400 illus.[em] (Nov.) [/em]