Calder: A Selected Bibliography

November 8th, 2017

Calder: The Conquest of Time is the first biography of America's greatest twentieth-century sculptor, Alexander Calder: an authoritative and revelatory achievement, based on a wealth of letters and papers never before available, and written by one of our most renowned art critics. Alexander Calder is one of the most beloved and widely admired artists of the twentieth 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, forty 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, 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--his father was a well-known sculptor, his mother a painter and a pioneering feminist--Calder went on as an adult to forge important friendships with a who's who of twentieth-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--she was 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. Jed Perl discusses Calder: The Conquest of Time on Wednesday 11/15, 6pm at the Co-op.

My reading always takes a meandering path. There are hundreds of books that helped shape Calder: The Conquest of Time, the first installment of what is going to be a two-volume biography of the twentieth-century American sculptor. Although nearly all the writing that I’ve done has focused on the visual arts, I’ve often found myself drawing sustenance from writers who engage with the literary or dramatic arts. Among the biographies I found enormously useful as I began to approach Calder’s life were Richard Ellmann’s extraordinary studies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. To understand a life as rich as Calder’s, you need to know everything you can about life as it was lived in New York and Paris when he was starting out in the 1920s and 1930s. That involves diving into a great many literary sources. Thomas Wolfe’s enormous posthumous novel You Can’t Go Home Again comes into my story, because Calder makes an appearance as the artist Piggy Logan. I’ve also found wonderful stories, anecdotes, and descriptions in memoirs that include Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, John Dos Passos’s The Best Times, Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, and Virgil Thomson’s autobiography (now available in the Library of America’s The State of Music and Other Writings). 

About Jed Perl: Jed Perl is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He was the art critic for The New Republic for twenty years. His previous books include Magicians and CharlatansAntoine'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.

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