What Alexander Calder Understood About Joy

America’s greatest sculptor gave objects a playful life of their own.

Späth / ullstein bild / Getty

If Alexander Calder were alive to visit the kids’ department of Pottery Barn or West Elm today, he would probably feel deeply torn, which tells you a lot about America’s best-known sculptor. He might well say that the shelves of knockoff mobiles “nauseate” him, as he did when DIY mobile-making guides started proliferating among craft hobbyists in the 1950s. Gimmicky popularizing of his work pained him. Then again, he would likely take real pleasure in discovering that his greatest sculptural innovation has found new life as an enchanting crib toy.

Calder, born in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1898, came of age at a time when prominent artists and thinkers had begun to consider play a serious pastime. “Everything good in life—love, nature, the arts, and family jests—is play,” Vladimir Nabokov declared in 1925. By the last decade of Calder’s life—he died in 1976—the view had acquired prescriptive authority. “It is in playing and only in playing,” the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott argued, “that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

It would be hard to find a more apt embodiment of that vision than Calder, who took a professional approach to play beginning in his 20s, as a designer of push-and-pull toys. Many of the same lively adjectives are commonly used to describe both the man and his art: playful, charming, colorful, big, unpretentious, brilliant. Yet his work also reflected his “whole personality,” not simply his high-spirited temperament: Calder’s sculptures are the products of a notably eclectic education. He was a student first of engineering and later of the modernist-art movements—surrealism, Dadaism, neoplasticism—that he encountered in Paris, where he lived on and off for five decades, starting in the 1920s.

A visit to the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1930 awakened Calder to the possibilities of abstract art, a concept he’d only begun to consider. Seeing the artist’s grids of primary-colored rectangles, he felt like a “baby being slapped to make his lungs start working,” he wrote later. Mondrian described his work as “fast” because it stimulated a viewer’s retinas to rhythmically track its lines and colors, an experience that gave Calder the idea to make his work move too. And from the Spanish painter Joan Miró, whom he met in 1928, Calder may have plucked the petal-like forms that adorned many of the new rotating sculptures he began creating in 1931. Another friend he made in Paris, Marcel Duchamp, coined the term mobile to describe the new art form.

But the influence of Calder’s contemporaries shouldn’t undercut the originality of the artist’s vision. That is the argument Jed Perl makes in his exhaustive two-volume biography, Calder, which now concludes with The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940–1976. (The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898–1940 came out in 2017.) A contributing art critic for The New York Review of Books, Perl offers a sweeping dismissal of previous assessments of Calder, particularly those that emphasized the lighthearted and derivative dimensions of his work. “All the critics of Calder’s art, from the philistines to the intellectuals, missed the point,” he announces, a dose of hyperbole that might prompt some readers to ask just how clear-eyed this reverent guide can be about his subject. But Perl’s devotion has fueled a passionate, erudite, and scrupulously researched reckoning with one of the 20th century’s most exciting artists. If some of the minutiae packed into nearly 1,400 pages induce yawns (Calder found one ship voyage to Europe “uneventful, very smooth,” and his fellow passengers rather dull), they don’t impede Perl’s case for Calder’s seriousness and stature.

Perl situates Calder in the lineage of modern-art pioneers such as Auguste Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Constantin Brancusi, and Pablo Picasso, “who reconsidered what it meant to create life.” They weren’t, as Perl sees it, simply upending academic conventions and representational techniques. They were intent on transforming “the life of the work of art itself” and unlocking new sources of aesthetic vitality. “For Calder, this meant that the object had to take on a life of its own. Calder’s objects began to move.” A modern master, he enlisted science—in particular, physics—in the service of a spatial and kinetic leap forward in art.

No biographical subject would complain about an assessment as ambitious as Perl’s, but Calder’s self-presentation was far more reticent. He didn’t like to talk about the deeper meaning of his work, so much so that when asked questions about it, he might mumble incomprehensibly or grunt gibberish like “ercaberk.” His life followed an undramatic arc: A middle-class boy from Philadelphia, he grew up to be a faithful husband, a responsible father of two, and an engaged citizen who protested the Vietnam War and gave to charitable causes. What few vices Calder had—he loved sweets and wine—caused little harm beyond his own waistline. He was a family man and liked keeping company with other “devoted duos.” (When asked why he didn’t care for Picasso, Calder said it was because he wasn’t a good father.)

His own parents—his mother was a painter and his father was a sculptor—attentively nurtured their son’s early creative inclinations. Calder hammered sheets of brass into animal figurines in the family’s basement workshop, and transformed his bedroom into a “maze of strings” (his sister’s phrase) that raised and lowered the shades, and turned the lights on and off. But he took his time entering the family trade. Calder chose to study engineering in college because, he later claimed, it was “the only profession I had ever heard of, except for ‘artist’—and I did like mechanics.” At the esteemed Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, he wrote his senior paper on how steam propels turbines—a harbinger, Perl says, of Calder’s interest in wind-propelled mobiles.

After graduating in 1919, Calder spent a few years testing out career options, among them becoming a merchant marine and working in a ship’s boiler room. The experience provided a taste of adventure, but also an unexpected bit of aesthetic training: Perl joins others, including Calder himself, in locating the origin story of his art in that experience. Having slept on deck one night, he awoke to see in the sky “a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other.” The astonishing sight “left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system,” he wrote decades later. Perl goes further. “This was a natural occurrence,” he writes, “but to Calder it was much more than that. The sun was rising and the moon was fading and the two developments were absolutely interrelated, just as everything in the solar system was somehow related.” Calder had glimpsed the animating principle of his art, “an art not of isolated or singular objects,” as Perl frames it, “but of a dialogue between objects—of disparate but linked elements and forces.”

The following year, in the fall of 1923, Calder enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York. What became stylistic hallmarks of his work began to appear—in his one-line drawings of animals, and in the uncanny portraits of friends sculpted from a single thread of wire. He started hammering and curling strips of brass into spiral-shaped jewelry, which he sold and gave away to female friends and patrons, his boyish charm on display.

Perl keeps his eye on the ambition and intellectual rigor beneath the image of Calder the naïf stumbling upon success and beauty, though some of the artist’s contemporaries, at least initially, were more amused than impressed. Trivializing the young American was all too easy: During visits to Paris in the ’20s and ’30s, he was known for wearing an orange suit and for puppeteering a miniature circus in his studio. He would sit on the floor with his tiny trapezists, horses, and weight lifters made from wire, cork, and fabric. Then he would hand-operate the show: hitting a springboard to fling an acrobat onto a horse, lowering an aerialist down a cord, inflating a clown’s balloon through a tube connected to his mouth. The novelist Thomas Wolfe attended one of these performances in New York and wrote a scathing parody of it in You Can’t Go Home Again. Calder appears as the character Piggy Logan, a thick-handed ringmaster whose circus act symbolizes the wasteful frivolity of the era’s idle rich. In Wolfe’s view, Calder was the clown.

The portrayal felt unfair to Calder, who was genuinely captivated by the carnival spectacle. “I love the space of the circus. I made some drawings of nothing but the tent. The whole thing of the vast space—I’ve always loved it,” he once said in an interview. The circus was also a fascinating experiment in spatial relations. The expansive volume under the tent, the spherical ring, the arcs of leaping gymnasts, the diagonals of tightrope were like the elements in the solar system, orbiting around one another, all bound by gravity. The Cirque Calder, as his performative installation became known, was a crucial stepping-stone toward the artist’s classical style, “the magisterial lyricism of his greatest mobiles,” Perl writes.

Word of the Cirque Calder spread when an influential performing-arts journalist praised its technical ingenuity and remarkably intricate miniatures: “All of this is arranged and balanced according to the laws of physics in action so that it allows for the miracles of circus acrobatics.” The writer Jean Cocteau was an early visitor, and in 1930, the prominent architect Frederick Kiesler lured the city’s creative haut monde—Mondrian, the architect Le Corbusier, and the artist Fernand Léger—to see Calder’s peculiar parlor trick. Léger soon inducted Calder into the Parisian modernist elite with an essay he wrote for Calder’s 1931 exhibition of elegant wire sculptures at Galerie Percier, the artist’s first foray into abstraction and his first prestigious gallery show. “Looking at these new works,” Léger wrote, “I think of Satie, Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi, Arp … Calder is of the same line.”

But that anointment, however heady, didn’t capture the kinetic dimension of Calder’s vision, which soon became a driving force in the evolution of his art. He added motors to his wire-and-wood sculptures to make them rotate and dance. “Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions,” Calder said. Perl probes and elaborates, singling out, for example, the concept of “parity” in physics as fundamental to Calder’s ideas about symmetry, balance, and movement. In his mobiles, elements on one side of the string may balance out those on the other, Perl writes. At the same time, they are locked in a complex dance of “disparity”: Shapes wield different energies, depending on where they fall in relation to the central axis. And then Calder stopped using motors; by 1940, he was letting the mobiles move on their own in the wind. These new works are “freedom incarnate,” Perl writes; “they play by themselves.”

You could say that Calder did a kind of dance of disparity himself as his career progressed, seemingly guided less by formal scientific or artistic doctrines than by the urge to keep experimenting and playing. Starting in the late 1930s and on through the ’70s, he built freestanding sheet-metal sculptures, many of them red or black biomorphic forms, that catapulted him beyond the confines of the art gallery. These large, stationary works, dubbed “stabiles,” still dealt with motion; now it was spectators who moved, in a circle around the sculptures. Yet even as he produced monumental public pieces—filling plazas and parks around the world—Calder remained much the same modest custodian of his creations that he had been back when staging his miniature circuses. He liked to keep his hands busy making “objects”—the word he preferred to sculpture—and his stabiles, unlike lots of other public art, conformed to no fixed theoretical school. The artist who often gave works away sometimes let his collectors go ahead and repaint them in different colors.

Calder’s hands-off approach led to an exceptionally hands-on form of engagement with his work, the ethos of play come full circle. At the Museum of Modern Art retrospective that celebrated him in 1943—he was a mere 45—a sign read please touch, a directive that had been in place at Calder exhibitions for the previous decade. “The artist was allowing his admirers to test the limits of traditional museum-going behavior, much as he had tested the limits of traditional three-dimensional art when he made sculpture move,” Perl writes.

Yet balancing insouciance and seriousness proved a challenge, too, even for a master of disparity like Calder. When the Guggenheim held a retrospective in 1964, 12 years before Calder died of a heart attack at age 78, children flooded the show, delighted to find tactile sculptures hung at their height. “My fan mail is enormous—everybody is under six,” Calder joked, except he wasn’t entirely amused. He hoped to “remedy the situation,” he wrote, by hanging his mobiles higher when the show traveled to Paris, where it would include “many large stabiles of the dreadnought variety … This may raise the age limit.” The news that the huge crowds at the Guggenheim were damaging his work prompted more immediate action: Plexiglass cases were placed around the most fragile pieces, and others were moved out of reach. When objects take on a life of their own—Calder’s great artistic feat—the results may be creatively liberating, but also bittersweet. “Don’t touch” became the policy at the Guggenheim, and it’s been in effect at Calder shows ever since.

This article appears in the May 2020 print edition with the headline “The Sculptor Who Made Art Move.”

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