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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Perl Meets Calder
Jed Perl is a vivid, nimble, expert, and entrancing art critic. For 20 years, he wrote for the New Republic and now contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. Perl is the author of the vibrant and encompassing New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century (2005) and the lithe and provocative Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World (2008). He now brings his gifts for portraying artists within dynamically rendered contexts both personal and cultural to the first comprehensive biography of the master modernist sculptor Alexander Calder. Booklist was curious about what inspired Perl to undertake this exciting but demanding endeavor, and the author was gracious enough to satisfy our curiosity. Check out our review of Calder: The Conquest of Time.
Has your experience making art influenced the way you write about art and artists?
PERL: I can’t imagine writing about the visual arts if I hadn’t had some hands-on experience in the studio. Although I haven’t painted in more than 30 years, something of the visceral experience of the artist’s life—the physicality of the materials, the struggle to make forms and colors speak—has remained with me to this day. That’s been very important in writing about Calder, who made his materials sing.
In Antoine’s Alphabet (2008), you declare that the early eighteenth-century French painter Antoine Watteau is your favorite artist. How did Calder become the artist you’ve devoted so much thought, work, and time to?
PERL: Our attractions to artists are mysterious. What I love in Calder is the expansiveness of his vision; the unabashedness with which he approached both his art and his life. But Watteau’s personality may be a little closer to my own, maybe a little more contemplative. One of the great things about spending time with art and artists is that they touch different sides of our personalities and experience. I’ve loved spending nearly a decade with Calder’s wonderfully optimistic spirit.
You’ve had unprecedented access to Calder’s letters and other materials. How did that come about?
PERL: It takes time to develop trust. For many years now, scholars have been exploring the extraordinary resources of the Calder Foundation, in New York. Sandy Rower, the artist’s grandson and president of the foundation, responded to something I wrote many years ago about Calder and his great friendships with the painter Fernand Léger and the architect Alvar Aalto. Sandy and I started to talk, and one thing led to another. The Calder family has been enormously supportive of my desire to see how the art and the life really fit together. It’s been a wonderful adventure to see Calder whole, and the family and the foundation have given me access to everything I need.
What was the greatest challenge in synthesizing all the material your research yielded into a flowing narrative?
PERL: Biography is an art, not a science. But it’s an art that’s grounded in facts. The challenge is figuring out what to do with all the facts. For the first couple of years I was working on this life of Calder, I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to evaluate all the facts. The breakthrough came after a few years of work. I began to develop what I can only describe as a sort of sixth sense about Calder—of how he responded to the world, how his mind worked, how he processed experiences. I figured out how to match his moves as a man and an artist with my own moves as a writer. At that point, the pieces began to fall into place.
Can you offer a key to the subtitle, The Conquest of Time?
PERL: Calder’s essential modern invention was the mobile, which moved sculpture into what many people have described as the fourth dimension, that of time. Calder once said that in the 1920s, when he was starting out, there was a lot of talk about movement in art—about the time element in art—but not much was being done about it. With his mobiles, Calder did something about it, something very big. He conquered time.
Your biography ends at a pivotal moment, leaving unilluminated the second half of the artist’s life. Will there be a second volume, and if so, why do you need two books to do Calder’s story justice?
PERL: The second volume—which begins in 1940 and ends with Calder’s death, in 1976—will appear two years from now. This is such an enormous story, so full of hard work, passionate friendships, and fascinating adventures on both sides of the Atlantic, that a single volume can’t contain it. The second volume will begin with the war years and Calder’s triumphant 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and move through his ever-growing fame in the postwar period. By the 1960s, Calder’s monumental stabiles were becoming part of the urban landscape in both the U.S. and Europe. It was Calder, more than any other artist of the twentieth century, who proved that the most radical artistic forms can touch the hearts and minds of a broad, heterogeneous public. Even as he aged, there was something ageless about Calder. To the end, he remained the avant-garde optimist he had been in the 1920s.
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