It takes a big-hearted, ambitious biographer to take on the life of a big-hearted, ambitious artist. Alexander Calder has found a perfect match in Jed Perl ... stout and smart ... Casual art fans in a hurry will find more detail here than they want from this exceptionally informed art commentator ... Perl similarly gives vivid life to his subject, discerningly and lovingly bringing to the stage of his page Calder’s colossal daring.
... [Perl] does not generally seek to prove or explain or argue for the deeper seriousness of Calder’s sculptures, and perhaps he should not need to do so. Instead, he allows the lavish illustrations to speak for themselves while he charts Calder’s life through a well-researched and engaging narrative rich in anecdotes. Like most biographers, Mr. Perl is fully on the side of his subject and quick to leap to Calder’s defense when he feels that a critic like Greenberg, or a dealer like Pierre Matisse, has behaved badly toward his protagonist ... an elaborate (and well-deserved) tribute that amounts to an all but officially authorized biography ... And yet Mr. Perl has set himself a difficult and in some ways unenviable task here. If the first volume recounted the heroic struggles and improbable triumphs of the young artist, as well as the process of his self-discovery, the second is largely a review of his increasingly inevitable success ... By the end of Mr. Perl’s second volume, we are left in no doubt as to the depth and durability of Calder’s career.
Perl’s narrative makes Calder come alive ... Perl is a gifted writer and he tells the story with obvious affection for the artist. He seems to have seen every work that Calder made and writes about them with verve and insight. The sections about Calder creating sets for theater and ballet productions, along with his entertaining illustrated books, provide a full portrait of the artist and reveal Calder’s great gifts. Perl also addresses Calder’s skills as a draftsman and printmaker – two aspects of his oeuvre that are easily overlooked ... Unlike the other major artists of the 20th century, Calder has never had a comprehensive biography that set his life and work in context. Thanks to Jed Perl’s magisterial work, now he does.
Perl completes his zestfully expert two-book biography of exuberantly radical sculptor Calder in a volume every bit as scintillating and substantial as the first ... Perl’s unlimited access to primary materials and phenomenal artistic perception and narrative vitality cohere into a luxuriously detailed, photo-rich, and spirited illumination of Calder’s complex temperament.
...the influence of Calder’s contemporaries shouldn’t undercut the originality of the artist’s vision. That is the argument Jed Perl makes in his exhaustive two-volume biography, Calder ... Perl offers a sweeping dismissal of previous assessments of Calder, particularly those that emphasized the lighthearted and derivative dimensions of his work ... Perl keeps his eye on the ambition and intellectual rigor beneath the image of Calder the naïf stumbling upon success and beauty, though some of the artist’s contemporaries, at least initially, were more amused than impressed ... Perl probes and elaborates, singling out, for example, the concept of 'parity' in physics as fundamental to Calder’s ideas about symmetry, balance, and movement.
... exhaustively researched and profusely illustrated ... Perl does a fine job, too, of introducing readers to the lesser-known Calder ... This surprisingly first full-length biography of Calder (an autobiography was published in the mid-1960s) offers a wealth of detail about the artist’s family life, social circle, and voluminous production. For casual readers, there may be both too much and also too little detail, making Calder an enigma within his own story, a challenge to any biographer—a bluff, hearty presence whose inner life and aesthetic ideas nevertheless seem hard to discern ... For readers interested in Calder and postwar modernism, the wealth of facts, anecdotes, and analysis here will be welcome.
... masterfully researched ... 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 ... A rhapsodic historian, Perl presents each sculpture as a masterpiece, but he doesn’t shy away from criticism ... 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 ... A towering achievement.
Perl draws out the depth of character and personality that was Calder and spins it around in step with Calder’s inventiveness ... Settling in to the first few chapters is like settling in to a seat at a Wagner opera. We dally around with Calder’s and his wife’s to’s and fro’s and then we realize there are still 500 pages to go and the weight of the book starts to make our arms stiff. Then it dawns on us: This is going to take a while to get through ... 500 pages and 500 illustrations later as this long story concludes, we sit with this heavy feeling that we just read an enormous amount of information about a person whose way of life was so singularly unique, who just happened to be in the middle of that grand ongoing Modern Art debate during the rebuilding of post-war America ... Though Perl’s research is intense, the presenting of it is exhausting. Hard core biographers will revel in the nitty-gritty mundane. Be prepared here for long-winded paragraphs and some very dry fits and starts. This is an author who is clearly fascinated by sidelines and obscure quips, for whom it would be excruciatingly painful if he had to leave a single thing out.
This second volume takes advantage of the same kind of open access to records, bringing readers particularly into the relaxed and surprisingly welcoming private life Calder and his wife Louisa shared for decades with friends and family members in homes like the one they had in Roxbury, Connecticut. Perl has combed through every scrap of documentation connected with Calder (this second volume has over 40 pages of often discursive notes), and he time and again combines the best elements to produce wonderful set-details ... the definitive biography of its subject, but the subject itself presents often insuperable problems even for a biographer as relentlessly upbeat and even occasionally starry-eyed as Perl. These problems are twofold: first, since these Knopf volumes are well illustrated, readers are presented with the same challenge that has always faced students of the avant-garde, presented with a manifestly ugly creation - book, symphony, painting, building, or, in Calder’s case, 'mobiles' and various heaps of scrap metal - and told either that it isn’t, in fact, ugly, or that its ugliness is a strength rather than a defect. Perl has been writing about modern art for a long time; he’s long since learned all the ways that exist to talk away this first problem ... The second problem is more fundamental to the art of biography, which is that Calder was very, very often a brusque, oblivious boor...The bearish charm is often more elusive, but maybe that’s the nature of this particular beast.