CALDER by Jed Perl
Kirkus Star


The Conquest of Space: The Later Years: 1940-1976
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The monumental conclusion to a two-part biography of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), one of the most important figures in 20th-century sculpture.

In this masterfully researched work, art historian Perl, a New York Review of Books contributor who served as the art critic for the New Republic for 20 years, has constructed an impressive monument that should raise the standards for future art biographies. The author celebrates his subject while effortlessly educating his audience; his text is at once erudite and accessible and achieves an exquisite balance between historical and theoretical readings. While the previous volume chronicled the genesis of Calder’s formal concepts, this one explores the life of an established artist as Calder was contemplating the permanence of his objects and his legacy. His career was catapulted by a series of outdoor commissions, as “people were beginning to recognize the power of his work to animate contemporary architectural spaces.” As Perl writes, “if in the 1930s Calder was conquering time as he made sculptures move, in the 1960s he was conquering space as he created abstract sculptures of a size and an impact seldom seen before.” Delicate mobiles evolved into “a new kind of urban landmark,” massive artworks that pulsed with “muscular energy.” Between Calder’s home in Roxbury, Connecticut, and his studio in rural France, Perl traces a steady sequence of major exhibitions and projects, from Calder’s MoMA debut in 1943 to his Whitney retrospective in 1976, which was on view the year he died of a heart attack. A rhapsodic historian, Perl presents each sculpture as a masterpiece, but he doesn’t shy away from criticism. He acknowledges that some considered Calder’s work “too easy” or “chic throwaways,” and he details the artist’s occasionally awkward commercial collaborations. Cumulatively, these episodes form a complete picture of an exceptional artist and all the significant developments of his oeuvre. Perl finds a vivacity between the artist and his many creations. “No longer were the figures in a painting or a sculpture what really mattered,” he writes. “Now what mattered was the life of the work of art itself.”

A towering achievement.

Pub Date: April 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-451-49411-5
Page count: 688pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2020