Alexander Calder is one of the most acclaimed and influential artists of the twentieth century. Calder’s wide body of work includes paintings, drawings, prints, book illustrations, jewellery, tapestries, and costumes and set designs for ballets and theatrical productions. Renowned for his invention of the mobile, a kinetic construction of suspended abstract elements that describe individual movements in changing harmony, Calder also devoted his life to making outdoor sculptures on a grand scale from bolted sheets of steel, many of which stand in public squares in cities throughout the world. His pieces are in the most prestigious public and private collections around the world.
Published in 2017, art critic Jed Perl has written the first significant biography of Calder. This captivating, beautifully written, deeply researched book features archival materials including personal and professional letters accompanied by around 400 photographs. Calder: The Conquest of Time demonstrates how prolific, pioneering and intellectually-curious Calder was. The second volume should be published in the next few years.
Alexander S. C. Rower is President and Founder of the Calder Foundation and Alexander Calder’s grandson. Since 1987, the Foundation has documented more than 23,000 works by Calder and established an extensive archive dedicated to all aspects of Calder’s career. Rower has curated and collaborated on many exhibitions, including “Calder: Sculptor of Air” (2009), Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; “Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933” (2008). He talks to Art is Alive about Perl’s biography, the role of the Calder Foundation, future exhibitions and the Calder residency located in France.
What did you uncover about Alexander Calder’s life that you didn’t know while working on Perl’s two-volume biography?
In the first volume, which spans 1898–1940, Jed’s investigations into my grandfather’s childhood are truly unprecedented. Although it is widely known that Calder’s parents were artists, no one has ever thoroughly explored the ways in which their activities impacted him. One of the great revelations of this biography is how the Arts and Crafts movement in Pasadena, California—as well as the birth of abstraction in New York City—greatly shaped Calder’s sensibility.
How long has the author been working on it?
Jed has been working on the project for nine years—and his research is ongoing. The second volume, which begins in 1940 and ends with Calder’s death in 1976, will be published in about two years.
What is your main challenge as President of the Calder Foundation today?
A number of misinformed statements, theories, and assumptions about Calder’s work have proliferated over the decades. For instance, because he received a degree in mechanical engineering, many people assume that Calder was an engineer-turned-artist, which is entirely false. My grandfather made sculpture as a child. Practical engineering was in his nature as a boy, which is well demonstrated in the biography. It might be said that the monumental works made late in his career were aided by his training as an engineer, but––as he said––the mobile would have come without the degree.
Has your experience ever altered your perception of Calder’s life and importance for art history?
Of course, before I even started the Calder Foundation, I loved and greatly admired my grandfather’s work. Throughout the years, my respect has profoundly deepened. Working with and learning from other scholars, curators, and writers, I have come to realize just how deeply influential Calder was to artists of the twentieth century. Not only that, his influence reverberates today in generations of younger artists who continue to look to his work for inspiration, especially in terms of perceptual notions of presence, absence, and immateriality.
Who was Calder collecting mostly and can you give us a few highlights of artists he loved?
My grandfather’s personal collection was largely made up of gifts he received from his artist friends. These included quite a few works by Fernand Léger and Joan Miró, who were both lifelong friends and whose work he greatly respected. His collection also included works by Arp, Picabia, Duchamp, Picasso, Ellsworth Kelly, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Wifredo Lam, Rufino Tamayo, and Ben Nicholson, among many others.
Tell us about the Calder Prize and the artist’s residency in France? From previous entrants, who do feel is the closest to Calder’s work and why?
Established in 1989, the Atelier Calder residency is located at my grandfather’s last home and studio in Saché, France. Three times per year we invite an artist to live and work for three-month sessions. The Calder Prize—awarded biannually to honor a living artist whose work reflects the continued effluence of Calder’s legacy—grew out of the success of the residency program in 2005. One of the least obvious prize laureates might be Darren Bader, who continues to challenge notions of what art is and how we relate to it.
The project that you dream to make happen?
One project that has long been a dream of mine came to fruition this year. Calder: Hypermobility, which closed at the Whitney Museum of American Art last month, gathered an unprecedented group of works that were activated on a daily basis by art handlers throughout the duration of the show. So often at a Calder exhibition, it’s difficult to have the full sensory experience of a work because movement is limited for safety or conservation reasons. The Whitney’s show gave visitors an opportunity to engage with Calder’s work and have the closest experience in real time to what my grandfather intended.
Future events and Calder exhibitions you’re excited about?
In the spring of 2019, a Calder/Picasso exhibition, which I am co-curating with fellow artist-grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, will open at the Musée Picasso-Paris. The process has been full of surprising discoveries, from the essential resonance within the artists’ idiosyncratic points of view to their radically different explorations and eventual exploitations of the void-space: Picasso pushed his anxieties of the abyss through the portrait process, while Calder externalized his emotions, creating a universal access to nonspace.