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New Alexander Calder book puts Philly-linked sculptor among the 20th-century greats

Jed Perl's new book "Calder: The Conquest of Time" rates the Philly-linked sculptor of mobiles and more among the top artists of the 20th century. Perl speaks at the Free Library on Tuesday.

Calder with Mobile in his Roxbury studio, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Calder with Mobile in his Roxbury studio, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.Read moreHerbert Matter

A new book is out about sculptor Alexander Calder, ranking him among the greats. Jed Perl's Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940 takes us through Calder's birth near Harrisburg in Lawnton,  his Pennsylvania days (including a brief time at Germantown Academy), his youthful wanderings, his emergence in Paris, and his rise to become, by 1940, the premiere U.S. sculptor of the century. Perl comes to the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Calder, the third of three famed sculptors of Philadelphia's Calder family, stood out among his peers. No dark, self-involved, tortured artist he, but a man of energy, focus, abundant humor. Among modernists – often a dark, austere bunch – his work is full of playfulness and joy.

What made him what he was? Perl, speaking by phone from New York, describes "a man living a very full life in the 20th century, open to experience, to friendships, curious about the world."

"He was very much a part of art worlds on both sides of the Atlantic," Perl says. "There is, though, a single drive and vision that pulls all these things together. And he keeps doing it all through his life."

Calder's embrace of multitudes led to his "discovery" in Paris in the 1920s. Making little sculptures out of cleverly bent wire, the young Calder created the Cirque Calder, a miniature circus of fanciful, kinetic, toylike figurines that  he took around and performed with at homes and halls.

Soon, the Paris art world was declaring him a modernist, an avant-garde leader. Meantime, Americans saw him as Europeanized. "To Europeans, he's very American, and to Americans, he seems very European – which goes to this many-sided quality of his," Perl says. "He has an elegance and refinement people associate with France, and an experimental, speculative quality people find very American, a 'Yankee inventiveness.' "

His most famous invention is that most familiar kind of modern sculpture, the mobile, a balanced assemblage of parts that hang and move freely. The name was coined in 1931 by Marcel Duchamp, he of that notorious toilet and descending nudes.

Calder literally added movement to an art form that had not moved before. "A mobile changes, takes on different rhythms and arrangements," Perl says. "People can respond to that with a certain degree of freedom." As Perl writes in The Conquest of Time, a mobile is an act of faith, "that the center will indeed hold, that things, no matter how complex they become, will not finally fall apart."

Think of Ghost, hanging delicate and white at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One thing Matthew Affron, the Muriel and Philip Berman curator of modern art at the museum, likes about Ghost is that, even though not originally meant for its present home – it was built for a Guggenheim Museum exhibit in 1964 – it still works, one of the museum's most familiar sights.

Affron also likes how, like all Calder sculptures, Ghost is "relational," made of parts that work somehow with one another. "So there's a drama about them," he says, "an internal dynamism that gives a sense of lightness and motion." A mobile hangs in space, and "you can see the tension among the parts, the balance that keeps the whole thing from collapsing." You can feel the energy it takes to stay together. Nice.

Even Calder's stabiles – sculptures that don't move, such as Three Discs, One Lacking on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – have movement, as Affron puts it, "separate parts in relation." That movement, Perl says, "makes him a huge influence on later U.S. sculptors such as Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, and David Smith, all of whom sought ways of rending their sculptures kinetic."

Three Generations of Calders

Click here for an interactive map of Calder sculptures in Center City.

From 2002 to 2009, Philly had "Calder on the Parkway," an outdoor collection created in an abortive attempt to land a Calder museum in town. Walking among the stabiles and mobiles, you felt the fun, the playfulness, plus many other emotions. "He really enjoyed being a public sculptor," Perl says. "He wanted people to have rich, free, immediate reactions to his work. He resisted explaining it, because he was a classicist, a man who thought the meaning arose from the form."

On the first day I ever spent alone in Philadelphia, I wandered unsuspecting into the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on Sixth Street. I found my way into the eight-story Eastburn Court, and there, hanging from the ceiling, was a sight I didn't know was there: White Cascade, a 100-foot-long, 10-ton, 60-foot-wide mobile, white discs rotating all but imperceptibly. Thought to be the biggest mobile in the world, it's one of the best-kept secret treasures in a town full of them.

What difference does White Cascade make to the people who work there? James Narron, first vice president and chief operating officer at the bank, cites the long tradition of central banks having artworks as key features. "And it's Philadelphia, with its rich history of central banking, public art – and the Calders. For all those reasons, it's so fitting that we have this sculpture here," Narron says, adding it was a pleasant surprise to see it when he first came in.

"But more," he says, "Calder is a great inspiration for thinking about being open, thinking across disciplines, which is what we want to do. In a sculpture like this, you can feel the arts and sciences and business coming together."

You have to think that Calder, who loved being a public, popular artist, making art that spoke to its moment, its space, and above all to the people who lived with it, would have loved those words. White Cascade (all 10 tons of it) embodies, as Perl writes, Calder's "belief that lightness and heaviness and the one and the many can live if not in harmony then in a disharmony that is, after its own fashion, harmonious."

Jed Perl, Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940.

Perl will appear 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Parkway Branch, 1901 Vine Street.

Tickets: $15.

Information: 215-567-4341 or