“Calder: The Conquest of Time”, The Early Years: 1898-1940, by Jed Perl.
The American sculptor Alexander Calder has two claims to fame: in the first half of his career he invented the “mobile”, so-named by his Parisian friend Marcel Duchamp in 1931, though the term originally referred to Calder’s motor-driven assemblages rather than the arrangement of hanging shapes now a familiar sight in every nursery; and in later career he pioneered the placement of large-scale abstract sculptures in the public arena, mostly “stabiles”, a term coined by another friend, Jean Arp, perhaps in rather ironic riposte. Jed Perl’s new book, the somewhat hubristically titled “Calder: The Conquest of Time”, deals with the former period, up to 1940. The second volume, we are led to believe, is out in a couple of years and is to be called “The Conquest of Space”. Onward and upward!
There is a big push on at the moment to heighten the reputation and profile of Calder, to move him up from blue-chip to gilt-edged status, and it’s all emanating from the artist’s Foundation in the US, headed up by the artist’s grandson and rather rakish President, Alexander S. C. Rower. Linked to this is the release of Jed Perl’s part 1 biography. The Tate showed his work last year, the Whitney this year. Rower and Perl, an odd couple, are out and about, talking at various venues, promoting the book. And Calder is, according to the PR, now “America’s Most Beloved Sculptor”. Wow; a sculptor, “beloved”! Maybe it has a different nuance in the states. Do we have a “beloved” UK sculptor? Certainly Caro wasn’t, nor even Henry Moore. Gormley? Yes, perhaps Gormley. But even he divides opinion, and I can’t imagine anyone ever hating the work of Calder in quite the same way that many – myself included – hate Gormley’s, whose Crosby Beach figures I’d be happy to stamp upon until ten feet below the tide. By contrast, Calder ticks the minimalist/modernist design boxes that people these days are hooked into (and that even I am occasionally partial to, design-wise if not art-wise), so it’s hard to imagine anything from this artist that would fail to please or amuse, never mind cause actual offence (perhaps some of the later, monster-sized plaza sculptures?). And it’s ever so easy to be charmed by some of the little mobiles and stabiles: https://twitter.com/calderfdn/status/911336348237406209.
I enjoyed last year’s Tate Modern show – http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/alexander-calder-performing-sculpture . The exhibition piqued my interest in Calder, who until then had not featured much in my thinking. But on a second visit, I did feel I’d rather “bottomed out”. I was disappointed by the restricted movement to almost all the mobiles, due to the way each element was joined to the next, which often meant the planar parts stayed pretty much in or about a single flat-ish configuration as the whole ensemble turned as one – hardly freedom of movement or the wholehearted conquest of three-dimensions (not to mention four).
Though the mobiles, and much of Calder’s other art, are to some degree made by prior conception and design, there is sometimes great mitigation, bordering on magic, in Calder’s spontaneous and considerable lifelong abilities as a hands-on improviser and manipulator of material. This is an aspect of the Calder story that Perl deals with well, because he really “gets” it; the development from boyhood toy-making in a basement workshop of his own; clever model-making and jewellery for his family; the famous Cirque Calder model circus performances that established him on the Paris scene; all the way to the Roxbury studio he eventually built for himself in the late thirties back in America. This conspicuous dexterity, bordering on legerdemain in the Cirque, is one of the things that distinguishes Calder from an artist like Caro, whose eye – for better or worse – was forever detached from his hands, and whose hands were in any case often replaced by those of his assistants. Calder was incapable of such distancing tactics until later in life, when the massive scale of his public commissions outstripped his capacities for fabrication. Up to 1940 at least, it all came very much out of the artist’s own hands.
The haptic physicality of Calder’s approach did occasionally look compelling in the Tate exhibition, in a rather lightweight manner. The ends of wires pressed against walls and floors in disconcertingly physical ways; things balanced unnervingly; materials were felt to be weighted and real; their manipulation felt inventive. One sculpture in particular, Tightrope from 1936, made me think very hard, as any sculptor might, about how literal gravitational forces might be subtly reconfigured as expressive sculptural ideas. This sculpture was a flash of brilliance.
The detail in Perl’s book is amazing. You are pretty much a third of the way through before Calder even gets to art school. It’s a fascinating childhood, due in part to both his parents being practising artists (his father was the successful but peripatetic academic sculptor, Sterling Calder) who gave the young “Sandy” full reign to his imagination. But the telling of it gets a little bogged down in detailing all the incidents and circumstances that may – or may not – come to influence or hold significance in the artist’s later life. Calder, starting out with a certain laid-back happy-go-lucky charm and a penchant for flash dressing, grows up to be a bit of an all-round fine fellow who could make friends with just about everyone who was anyone, so long as they didn’t want to dragoon him into some cause or movement or other. He was independent minded, an attractive virtue, but it does seem to have made him in the end, and despite all his close friendships with Surrealists, Dadaists and sundry modernists, something of a one-off, an odd-ball, even. Perl works hard to make that independence count as significance. So Calder’s reputation in some quarters for triviality is something that Perl tries to counter. He eruditely establishes that the story of the man himself is of great human interest, and further, that his work had, and still has, great appeal. But I think Perl is engaged in trying to institute recognition of achievement far beyond that particular low-hanging fruit. His claim is nothing less than “The Conquest of Time”, as the book announces but doesn’t quite explain, positioning Calder as a true radical in the history of sculpture and one of modernism’s most important innovators. Neither by Calder’s historical context, nor by the content of the work, am I much convinced by that assertion, and such an argument only adds a little more to the general deflation I feel about the achievements of late modernism. Perl is not known for bowing to the popular gods of modern art, but he goes all the way with Calder.
Normally when I read about an artist, I prefer a critique – not necessarily negative, but certainly disinterested. I suppose it is unlikely anyone would want to expend the time and the mammoth effort on compiling a biography as detailed and well-researched as Jed Perl’s “Calder” without being a little besotted with their subject, though I don’t recall Hilary Spurling’s magnificent two-volume “Matisse” biography being unduly reverent; and I’ve just read a neat little old volume on Louis Sullivan by Hugh Morrison which is both fulsome and delightfully critical by turns. Some will find it charming, but Jed Perl loves Calder and it shows. Is it just that with Matisse, or even Sullivan, one can be more certain when one talks in superlatives; whereas with Calder, the less proven assertions of quality and substance mean the pudding is a little over-egged? Perl does quite a lot of second-guessing of the reader, or what actually might be better termed “over-prompting”, sometimes to distraction. He does exceptionally well in evoking the turbulent artistic milieu of between-the-wars New York and (especially) Left-bank Paris, in all its artistic bonhomie and verve, in which the charismatic Calder flourishes (socially and artistically, if not financially) from the start. When Perl seeks to project into the future – Calder’s future – the myriad possible influences engendered by this extended formative moment in Calder’s life, he rather overstates his case:
“The gaiety, the parties, the drink, the love of theatrical events high and low and any and all forms of experimentation in the arts – for Calder all this began in Greenwich Village in the 1920s and lasted a lifetime. Calder’s League friend Clay Spohn later spoke of the books he was reading in that period: Havelock Ellis’s The Dance of Life, Clive Bell’s essays about ‘significant form’, and Lewis Mumford’s book about the arrival of the modern spirit in America, Sticks and Stones. Spohn also recalled seeing Picasso in New York, perhaps at the Knoedler Gallery. Within a decade, Calder would begin a lifelong involvement with the art of the dance, create abstract sculpture that radically expanded the possibilities of significant form, find none other than Picasso visiting two of his exhibitions in Paris, and read a searching review of his work by Lewis Mumford in The New Yorker.”
Would he indeed! What a coincidence!
The really big event in Calder’s early career was a visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio, in October of 1930, which stopped him in his tracks and converted him pretty much overnight into an abstract artist. Mondrian was 58 years old, about half way through his nineteen or so years in Paris, and heavily into his most austere phase of geometric “Compositions”, with a studio decorated accordingly. Prior to this, we are told, Calder had little interest or “feel” for abstract art. But, with this encounter, he picked up on it straight away, and by the very next year was showing sculptures with simple wire-formed spatial geometry and black, white and primary-coloured solids, in an exhibition at Galerie Percier, Paris – his first “abstract” works.
Writing on the Galerie Percier show, Perl asks: “…wasn’t Calder’s work in the early 1930’s becoming among the greatest of all artistic studies of the hidden secrets of space?” Put like that, the answer is certainly “no”. Not only can I think of a hundred artists who are more spatial in a variety of ways, but we are never told of what these “hidden secrets of space” might comprise. The early abstract sculptures are attractive and novel, clever even, but they don’t get to grips with three-dimensionality and spatiality to any great degree beyond the elucidation of poetic metaphors for the movements of the planets. Calder was, in this early work (and remained so, in my opinion), a Formalist, in the sense of its original derivation from Parisian Symbolism in the 1890s. The focus is on associated meanings and supposedly profound interpretations of simple shapes. These sculptures might move through space, but they have no intrinsic spatiality built in to how they articulate their materials. They remain for the most part diagrammatic and symbolic. Sure, this is early days for abstract sculpture, if that’s what these things are. I’m not so sure, about their abstractness or their engagement with space. Like a lot of the early constructivists, Calder seems mesmerised by pseudo-scientific theory and junk philosophy. Perl does little to dispel the fog:
Ouspensky [a Russian mathematician, esotericist and Gurdjieff apologist], in A New Model of the Universe, explained, “If we represent time by line, then the only line that will satisfy all the demands of time will be a spiral. A spiral is a ‘three-dimensional line’, so to speak.” It was the spiral that carried Ouspensky ever deeper into his spatial researches, indeed from the fifth dimension into the sixth, which “is the way out of the circle. If we imagine that one end of the curve rises from the surface, we visualise the third dimension of time – the sixth dimension of space. The line of time becomes a spiral.” That might very well be the endless spiral in Calder’s Movement in Space. Later on, Ouspensky spoke of the “emptiness” of “celestial space” – not unlike the emptiness of Calder’s white paper – which becomes filled with “luminous points [that] have that have turned into worlds moving in space. The universe of flying globes has come into being.” He added, “If we wish to represent graphically the paths of this motion, we shall represent the path of the sun as a line, the path of the earth as a spiral winding round this line, and the path of the moon as a spiral winding round the spiral of the earth.” Whether or not Calder was aware of these passages – Ouspensky’s book was published in English in 1931 – they certainly suggest the kind of thinking that animated his art. (p.414)
More over-egging there, and far from the required debunking, Perl is inclined to use this nonsense as evidence of Calder’s precocious grasp of modern and progressive thinking. But literal movement doesn’t make sculpture either three-dimensional or abstract, and these early works are too close for comfort to the mechanisms of the orrery. I reckon Perl should call this out, but he ploughs on:
“Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere [which clanked around a bit] was Calder’s first hanging mobile… The three dimensions of space are united not only with the fourth dimension of time but what might be thought of as the fifth dimension of sound. Was Calder thinking not only about the movement of the spheres but also the music of the spheres – which was the sort of thing that interested Ouspensky?”
Unfortunately it’s not the sort of thing that interests me much, other than as a whacky anecdote. This is to be unduly negative about Perl’s book, which is in many ways an exemplary piece of story-telling. The thing is, I’m really more critical of Calder than Perl, because sculptural critique is the place where I’m coming from, and I do rather suspect Perl is not absolutely on the case about abstract sculpture. Perhaps he should be, to make such big claims for Calder’s work, though most people won’t worry about it.
As it is now, so it was back then: art of the highest order acts (often inadvertently, but no less pointedly) in part as an analytical critique of the accepted norms of contemporary taste, and not as a co-opter of them. In the first half of the 20th century (but continuing even now, when modern design has become almost insufferably smug about its own ubiquitous achievements) art needed to convey something altogether coarser and truer than Calder’s vision encompassed, with a better balance of intellectual, emotional and aesthetic punch. This was delivered, to some degree, by the early workings of the Abstract Expressionists, whose quest for an abstract art of significance drove their work to genuinely new painterly intentions – until it went in some cases too far down the road of top-heavy subject-matter. By contrast, Calder’s vision remained profoundly superficial, and even his friendships with Duchamp and Miro failed to give it an intellectual edge. It is, from first to last, very much of an exercise in fun aesthetics, and remains firmly within the limits of popular taste, even as it explored the fringes of the avant garde – if that’s not an historical contradiction. It certainly isn’t any longer.
The root difficulty, it seems to me, is Calder’s love of, and immersion in, drawing. Perl doesn’t even try to extricate him, because Perl loves the drawing too. It is, after all, good drawing! The early wire portraits are clever. But the ever-present limitations of flatness in the non-figurative work are not addressed by Calder, or for that matter, by Perl. Those typical Calder mobile shapes might well be moving around, spiralling, doing whatever they do, but they remain resolutely shapes in isolation, and could only hope to gain a semblance of coherence by remaining in the two-dimensional world of “designed” ideas. A synthesis of three-dimensionality per se is not approachable this way. Calder the abstract artist deals almost exclusively with flat shape, the occasional sphere, and the linearity of wire. If your main tools in developing sculptures are shape and line, then you are inevitably going to err towards flatness, even with the refined physicality in material handling that Calder had at his disposal. And when Calder has to bring spatiality into the equation, it comprises of the movement of flat planes in an orbit (when they are hanging), or the intersection of flat planes as a means to make flat shapes stand up (when they are not hanging). He is far from alone in respect of this failing – you can level a similar kind of criticism at a lot of work by David Smith and Anthony Caro, including some of the latter’s best sixties stuff, which has either a frontal or an architectural nature to the space(s) it proposes. And of course you could apply that criticism to a thousand and one other designers of supposedly “abstract” sculpture, wherein the literalness of actual space is never transcended. Therein would be a true conquest of space, and, to a degree, time. The latter is always a factor in a non-passive and responsive way of looking at any sculpture that is properly three-dimensional.
Designed abstract sculpture is something of a contradiction; and flat abstract sculpture is an abnegation of potential. If taste changes, Calder might be caught out of favour, with only the slenderest of reasons for retaining our engagement: on a “tightrope”, perhaps. If he’s as important as Perl makes out, where is the follow-on to his mobiles, aside from in the playroom? Where is the “Calderist” school of moving sculpture?