Alexander Calder and the Optimism of Modernism: Jed Perl in Conversation with Morgan Meis

Jed Perl and Morgan Meis in The Easel:

ScreenHunter_2875 Oct. 31 16.09In the view of renowned US author and critic Jed Perl, Alexander Calder remains America’s greatest sculptor. Easel Contributing Editor Morgan Meis recently talked to Perl about his biography of Calder, the first volume of which has just been published.

“When so many emigres arrived from Europe – artists, writers – the Calders were the go-to people even for those they didn’t already know… In a larger metaphoric sense that is part of what mobiles are about. The Calders loved dancing. On New Year’s Eve, the Calders would entertain their friends at their house in Roxbury, Connecticut, and they would all still be dancing wildly in the early hours. You can see the connection between that social dancing and the idea of a mobile. Mobiles are about a sense of community, a sense of connectedness, the relations between people, the way parts go together.”

Morgan Meis: Jed, I would have bet a fair amount of money that a Calder biography had already been written. Why has it taken so long?

Jed Perl: In the 1950s Calder was friends with a man named William Rogers and talked to him about his writing a book on Calder. Rogers did write the book, but when Calder and his wife saw the typescript they were not pleased. It was very anecdotal, full of stories about Calder and his friends. They rejected it and it was never published. This started a tradition, I think, in the Calder family of being somewhat skeptical about biographies.

As his fame grew, Calder and his family were thrilled by his popularity. But after his death in 1976, the family started to feel that his true position as a pioneer, as an avant- gardist, the sense of the mobile as a great modernist invention was getting lost in the view of Calder as the American amuser, the man with the circus. So I think there was a hesitation about a biography. Would it put too much focus on his ebullient, always upbeat personality and not enough on his work? I think their main objective was to bring to the fore a sense of who he had been in the 30s and 40s, how radical his work had been, how serious and sometimes even sober it was. There had to be a sense of that before they were willing to go ahead with a project like this biography.

MM: Okay, but that background leaves me a bit surprised that you would write a biography about Calder. In your 2005 book New Art City, you use phrases like ‘the seriousness of the Abstract Expressionists.’ To me, Calder represents something playful and perhaps even a little bit frivolous. Having read the first volume of the biography, obviously this is not your take on Calder at all. Can you say a little bit more about how he should be viewed?

JP: Well, three or four things come to mind.

More here.