Book Review: Alexander Calder, 1898-1976

by Marla Prather, Yale University Press, 40 pounds sterling;

According to the Yale University Press catalogue, their new book on Calder “will for the first time present Calder in a serious light and a proper historical context.” This is not true. Joan Marter’s book, first published in 1991 and now in paperback, does precisely that-and does it rather better.

The Yale “book” is a clear demonstration of a worrying development in book publishing: the exhibition catalogue marketed in the guise of a seemingly objective overview of an artist’s career. ln terms of practicality, the Yale catalogue, as with most such ventures, has no Index and no list of illustrations, thus making it infuriating to use as a reference tool. It does have a bibliography and exhibition history. The Marter book however has indices to all the material.

ln terms of objectivity, it needs to be remembered that exhibition catalogues tend to Present their artists in a favorable light (which is only natural), and that this one is co-curated by Alexander S.C. Rower, the director of the Calder Foundation, who also provided the chronology, bibliography, and exhibition history. He is also the artist’s grandson. This is not to doubt Mr. Rower’s sincerity but merely to suggest that he is probably predisposed to seeing Calder in a less than problematic light. For example, the chronology regularly informs us that artists of the stature of Picasso and Matisse visited Calder exhibition openings, but omits to tell us what exhibitions Calder visited. The effect of this is to bolster Calder’s standing but to downplay his indebtedness to other artists – such as Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Klee, Pevsner, and the Futurists.

We know, for instance, that as a young man, Calder visited the Palace of Fine Arts in the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition because Margaret Calder Hayes has told us, a point which Marter records but Rower omits from his chronology. Now, as Futurist paintings and sculptures were exhibited at this exposition, and as Calder in the ’30s referred to his indebtedness to the Futurists, surely an early, potentially formative influence is at least worth a mention in the chronology?

We know that Calder’s father had books on Matisse and Picasso (Marter tells us) and it is obvious that Picasso influenced Calder markedly: see Calder’s wire sculptures of Calvin Coolidge (1927), or Medusa (1930), which have much in common with Picasso’s manipulations of profile. But Picasso isn’t even mentioned in either text or chronology until page 55 (we are in 1930 at this point) and is scarcely dealt with at all elsewhere. We are informed in Prather’s text that even before Calder’s creation of the mobile he
was “internationally recognized as the author of a new medium, that is, wire sculpture.”

No evidence is provided for this international recognition, which is not surprising since (as Marter points out) Jean Crotti had made a wire sculpture of Duchamp in 1915, the Futurist Giacomo Balla was also working in this vein from 1915, and perhaps crucially, both Picasso and Gonzalez were soldering wire sculptures in the 1920s.

To return to the chronology, Rower informs us, quite properly, that Calder’s meeting with Mondrian in the latter’s studio in 1930 “deeply impressed” and “shocked” the artist-but he fails to attribute any such significance to Calder’s earlier meeting with Miro in 1928 when Miro showed
Calder collages such as Spanish Dancer which, as Albert E. Elsen pointed out, “stunned” Calder by
their use of improbable materials being transformed into art.

I belabor this question of sources and indebtedness because, as Elsen again Pointed out, not only is Calder’s art unthinkable without European sources, but his real gift was “to begin where other artists left off and to draw new conclusions.” The essential difference between these two books on Calder is that Marter’s is a scrupulous, scholarly, detailed volume that explores Calder’s sources and is also a pleasure to read. The exhibition catalogue acknowledges some of the sources but consistently downplays them. Occasionally there is fresh information provided (in the list of exhibitions for example), but it is striking how little is added to Marter’s assessment.

Again and again, elements which were brought to the forefront by Marter or Elsen have been left unexplored. If Calder is to be situated in an historical context, then why no detailed exploration of the way in which he created his poetic worlds, and of their indebtedness to Arp, Miro, Klee, and company? Why no detailed exploration of one of Calder’s most consistent characteristics, his humor? Prather acknowledges that the artist’s whimsy and playfulness have militated against him being seen as a serious artist-so one would expect a serious discussion of this element-but her take on this is that such comment ignores the sophistication of his work. The obvious retort to this, is that you can have a sophisticated meal or a sophisticated toy (and Calder made toys) but this is not an argument in terms of the seriousness of the work. There is a case to be made for Calder’s humor in terms of its life-affirming potential but this catalogue doesn’t make it. The question to be asked – and answered – is whether Calder’s status is the equivalent of a minor humorous artist like Willette, or whether his humor and joie de vivre were part and parcel of a larger humane exploration of the world-like Matisse.

The greatest problem with the catalogue is that it never tackles serious issues head on. We are told that Calder is “one of the most innovative abstract artists of the 20th century” but where is the evidence for this? Anna Moszynska’s history of abstract art doesn’t even begin to see him in such terms. Indeed there is an argument to be made that he was never an abstract artist at all, in any serious sense. He himself stated that he had an “impulse to work in an abstract manner”- which is not the same thing as saying that he was an abstract artist. Throughout his life he oscillated between figurative/biomorphic forms and abstracted forms, drawing sustenance from Surrealist and abstract tendencies.

We are told that Calder himself noted that if one of his sculptures was “made for a particular place, it is more successful” but again this intriguing aspect of site-specificity is ignored. ls it true? Does Calder’s best work spring from a site-specific impulse? Again in an intriguing short essay by Arnauld Pierre, which makes the hopeful comparison between Calders “composition of movement” in his mobiles and choreography, the logic of the comparison is not explored in that Calder’s mobiles had a limited range of movement and more importantly, choreography is the art of purposeful movement. Or again the
inventiveness of Calder in getting sculpture into space and vice versa, which Elsen considered to be equaled only by Picasso, is scarcely touched upon.

The one area where the Yale book scores significantly is in its design. As ever with Yale books the wide screen format of the pages, the excellent reproductions and the simple but elegant design pay handsome dividends. If only Marter’s text could be combined with Yale’s design skills… !

–Brian McAvera