Calder: The Conquest of Time, The Early Years (1898–1940)

About the Author

Jed Perl is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. He was the art critic for the New Republic for 20 years and a contributing editor to Vogue for a decade, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. His previous books include Magicians and Charlatans, Antoine’s Alphabet, and New Art City, which was a New York Times Notable Book and an Atlantic Book of the Year. He lives in New York City.

Calder: The Conquest of Time, The Early Years (1898–1940)

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Jed Perl

The first biography of Alexander Calder, one of the most beloved and widely admired artists of the 20th century. Anybody who has ever set foot in a museum knows him as the inventor of the mobile, America’s unique contribution to modern art. But only now, 40 years after the artist’s death, is the full story of his life being told in this biography, which is based on unprecedented access to Calder’s letters and papers as well as scores of interviews. Jed Perl shows us why Calder was—and remains—a barrier breaker and an avant-garde artist with mass appeal.

 

This beautifully written, deeply researched book opens with Calder’s wonderfully peripatetic upbringing in Philadelphia, California, and New York. Born in 1898 into a family of artists, Calder went on as an adult to forge important friendships with a who’s who of 20th-century artists, including Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Braque, and Piet Mondrian. We move through Calder’s early years studying engineering to his first artistic triumphs in Paris, in the late 1920s, and to his emergence as a leader in the international abstract avant-garde. His marriage in 1931 to the free-spirited Louisa James—a great-niece of Henry James—is a richly romantic story, related here with a wealth of detail and nuance.

 

Calder’s life takes on a transatlantic richness, from New York’s Greenwich Village in the Roaring Twenties, to the Left Bank of Paris during the Depression, and then back to the United States, where the Calders bought a run-down old farmhouse in western Connecticut. New light is shed on Calder’s lifelong interest in dance, theater, and performance, ranging from the Cirque Calder, the theatrical event that became his calling card in bohemian Paris to collaborations with the choreographer Martha Graham and the composer Virgil Thomson. More than 350 illustrations in color and black and white—including little-known works and many archival photographs that have never before been seen—further enrich the story.

  • Hardcover
  • 704 pages, 350+ illustrations
  • Published: 2017


Editorial Reviews

“Calder is an artist whose influence is so ubiquitous that you sometimes completely lose sight of him. Jed Perl, one of our most brilliant art critics, has remedied this in a superbly researched, illustrated, and crafted biography of his early years. We can now savor Calder’s accomplishment fully and see where his genius lies, and how it matters to us today.” —John Ashbery

“All artists are critics but very few critics are artists. Jed Perl is one of those few. He has the critical imagination to imagine Calder’s imagination, and the rare ability to engage that of the reader.” —Fran Lebowitz

“A meticulously researched biography of one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. . . . Not only an essential record of the first 40 years of Calder’s life, but an exceptional chronicle of the genesis of modernism.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A hulking and exhaustively researched biography of American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976), focusing on the first four decades of his life. . . . 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.’” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Art critic Perl joins the select ranks of multivolume arts biographers, among them Hilary Spurling on Matisse and John Richardson on Picasso, with the first in a foundational two-book inquiry into the unusually sunny life and exuberantly radical work of sculptor Alexander Calder. . . . Graced with 400 photographs, Perl’s dynamic and illuminating biography, as buoyant and evocative as Calder’s sculptures, concludes with the ebullient and cosmic artist poised for ever more creative adventures and renown.” —Booklist, starred review

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