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.
Watch: Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain
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.”