Alexander Calder -- Alexander Calder by Joan M. Marter

By Denton, Monroe | Art Journal, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Alexander Calder -- Alexander Calder by Joan M. Marter

Denton, Monroe, Art Journal

Joan M. Marter. Alexander Calder. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 318 pp.; 170 b/w ills. $75.00

Joan Marter's book appears at the right time. The Guggenheim Museum's Picasso and the Age of Iron proved the strength of Alexander Calder's (1898-1976) early work, against strong competition from Pablo Picasso, Julio Gonzalez, Alberto Giacometti, and the local favorite, David Smith.(1) The time to extract the image of the sculptor from a Norman Rockwellish uncle has arrived. The slump in reputation that follows most artists' deaths, and here coincided with the hangover of a national bicentennial, is yielding to a reconsideration of the sculptor's contribution that should place him securely within the story of twentieth-century sculptural innovation in time for his centennial.

The current Joan Miro retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art,(2) could provide new critical standards to consider the implications of populism in the American's work as much as in that of his Spanish colleague and inspiration, whose work is securely within the pantheon of modernism. The contrast between Miro's status as the subject of Clement Greenberg's only monograph and the critic's relative ignoring of the sculptor should be repaired. Academic mandarinism promoting a view of European work as grounded in "superior literature" (Greenberg's take on Jean Dubuffet, e.g.) has led to spurious readings of "cultural literacy" that obscure the real strengths of more accessible artists. Calder has never received the critical championing accorded David Smith, eight years his junior. Perhaps the anarchic play of the older artist's works was too easy. Things are starting to change already. The recent Naifeh/Smith biography credits Herbert Matter's Calder film as essential preparation for Hans Namuth's famous campaign of Jackson Pollock photographs.(3) Marter can claim a lioness' share of the credit for the upward evaluation of Calder's work.

Marter's book will be a useful guide to Calder's place within international modernism. Dore Ashton's essay in the Guggenheim catalogue cites the book regarding John Sloan (here not so much the painter but Calder's teacher), on "line" as "entirely a sign, a mental invention" (p. 25).(4) This citation of "sign" opens the door to new, postmodernist interpretations not only of Calder, but of Sloan and earlier New York/Philadelphia art, a hint of the possibilities in stirring native intellectual soil.

Calder's roots in the socially engaged art of U.S. modernism are an important theme of Marter's biography. Her consideration of his paintings of the 1920s in chapter one suggests some of the rich possibilities of American modernism. The author generously leaves openings to future scholars. For example, while acknowledging mainstream European modernism, she summarizes other possibilities in a way that convincingly parallels her subject's experimentation:

There are several possible explanations for Calder's use of a palette with more intense and varied colors here. He may have become interested in the paintings of American artists influenced by the Fauves, or he may have been experimenting with the Maratta color system favored by John Sloan (p. 33).

This reader was grateful to be referred to Maratta's theory and its influence on the paintings of Sloan, Robert Henri, and George Bellows.

Marter claims this is "the first full-scale study of Calder" (p. 4), appropriately characterizing the Whitney Museum's Calder's Universe catalogue by Jean Lipman as "attempt[ing] to present the rich variety of his achievement but offer[ing] little scholarly apparatus other than a detailed chronology of the artist's career" (p. 4)(5) Following the sculptor's death five weeks after the 1976 Whitney opening, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures was republished with a new introduction by Jean Davidson, a son-in-law.(6)

Since then, one important source, Three Alexander Calders: A Family Memoir, by the artist's sister, Margaret Calder Hayes, has introduced new biographical data;(7) the book is second to the Autobiography in frequency of citation here. …

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