Stephen Bayley

High wire act

The artist progressed from a ‘circus’ of mechanical toys to delicate mobiles, moved by air currents to delightful effect

‘Mid-century modern’ is the useful term popularised by Cara Greenberg’s 1984 book of that title. The United States, the civilisation that turned PR and branding into art forms, wanted homegrown creative heroes. In design there were Charles Eames and George Nelson with their homey hopsack suits and wash’n’wear shirts, their sensible Wasp homilies: a counterattack against imported — and often baffling — exotics from the Bauhaus.

It was the same in fine art. Jackson Pollock (Jack the Dripper) was a roughneck from cowboy country in Wyoming who became a darling of the media, not least because of his readily reportable deplorable behaviour. And then there was Alexander Calder, not a hard-scrabble survivor at all, but born in Philadelphia to a family of artists.

True, they were doggedly traditional artists with a record of humdrum paintings and lumpen sculpture, but Calder’s parents had, importantly, spent time in Paris. Referring to his life in art, Calder neatly said: ‘I wasn’t brought up, I was framed.’ To mid-century America, Pollock and Calder seemed importantly different to Kline, Rothko and Gorky. They were distinctively American.

The first volume of Jed Perl’s ambitious study, the very first Calder biography, ends in 1940, long before mid-century modern became an identifiable style label, but offers splendid, meticulous research into Calder’s singular life-in-art. It’s a solid brick in the monument to Calder’s heroic stature.

Yet perhaps it is too slavishly respectful a treatment. At mid-century, American artists and critics were in a mythologising lockstep to create a self-elected elite. The equivalent in literature to Clement Greenberg’s and Harold Rosenberg’s grip on art criticism was the literary cadre described in Norman Podhoretz’s gruesomely embarrassing 1967 confessional Making It.

Calder studied engineering and worked for Edison before diverting to New York’s Art Students’ League, then found himself on ancestral turf in Paris in 1926.

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