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Useless Machines: On Alexander Calder, Jed Perl, and Standing Apart

By Jackson Arn.

Jed Perl, Calder (Knopf, 2017)

The history of modern art is a struggle, not always very successful, to untie a tangled knot of ironic intentions. Some artists would like to use irony as a kind of weapon against tradition and seriousness. In practice, though, the weapon can be so flimsy it ends up pleasing the powers that be, like Orwell’s famous walking-stick delivering a “delightful tickling” to the belly of the elephant it’s supposed to be hurting. In the end, irony’s true function is often to strengthen the artist’s reputation as an aloof genius. Irony can even ironize itself back into seriousness, or at least try.

In the thirty years he’s spent as a critic, Jed Perl has questioned the different kinds of irony that, together, comprise a good deal of modern art. A trained painter with degrees from Columbia and Skowhegan School, he began writing for the influential journal The New Criterion in the early 1980s, and, in 1994, became chief art critic for The New Republic. Perl is rarely more eloquent than when he challenges aesthetic dogmas, particularly that impish, self-referential art deserves to be celebrated for its “subversiveness.”

In two of the more gloriously inflammatory pieces of criticism penned by anyone in the last decade—one on Jeff Koons, the other on Robert Rauschenberg, both published in The New York Review of Books—Perl accused his subjects of running the same, decades-long con, churning out showy, insipid art that critics presume to be much smarter than it seemed. The myth of the artist as court jester, Perl believes, hides a much tawdrier reality: figures like Koons and Rauschenberg have gotten filthy rich by finding ways of marketing their faux-subversiveness. Irony, understood as a kind of wry self-awareness, is their alibi.

Even when praising a master ironist like Duchamp, Perl tends to qualify the scope of the artist’s accomplishments, treating them as private, personal, not quite revolutionary. Irony is most compelling, the implication would seem to be, when it exists on a modest scale; when it’s directed back at the artist or the work of art itself instead of exploding outward in all directions. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Perl should be the one to write the first full-length biography of Alexander Calder, the gentlest of ironists, the revolutionary modernist who never really seemed to tear down anything.

The Conquest of Time: The Early Years, 1898-1940, the first of Perl’s two volumes on Calder (the second is due out in 2019), follows the artist from his childhood in Philadelphia through his time in Paris, New York, and Barcelona, where he cultivated his “classical style” and befriended some of the greatest avant-gardists of the era, including Duchamp, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian. Some books about creative geniuses thrive on the tensions between the subject’s life and work—compare, for instance, the ethical rigor of Dostoevsky’s fiction with the way the deadbeat gambler actually chose to live his life. Not so Perl’s treatment of Calder, which emphasizes the artist’s uncommon amiability and clarity of mind, qualities Perl finds evoked in his sculptures. While his famous peers broke promises and burned bridges, Calder remained a model of friendship and fidelity, a quiet eye at the center of the modernist hurricane.

Over the course of six hundred-some pages, Perl finds the space to detail every raindrop and gust of wind. This is the kind of biography, owing a lot to Stephen Greenblatt and the New Historicist movement, that doesn’t believe in the concept of background: almost everything that happened around Calder is relevant to Calder. And so we get pages on Calder and his wife Louisa’s favorite restaurants in Paris, Kauffer’s illustrations for Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Henry James’s expat writings. Some of this information is undeniably helpful in understanding Calder’s life, some of it may or may not be, and some of it probably isn’t. Its cumulative effect, in any case, is to mystify Calder further instead of rendering him clearer. The sheer number of facts Perl offers about early 20th century culture frequently threatens to dwarf his book’s subject. For all his talent, Calder often comes off here as a man around whom things happened, not a man who made things happen.

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that Calder was boring. Far from it: his father, Alexander “Stirling” Calder, was among the most respected sculptors of the era, and the young Calder grew up meeting his father’s famous friends, traveling across the country, and learning tricks of the trade most accomplished sculptors don’t acquire until they’re adults. And yet Calder seems to have enjoyed that rarest of commodities among great 20th century artists, a happy childhood, undisturbed by struggles with his intimidatingly accomplished father. (Calder died forty-two years ago—had he been more of a wild child, would there have been a major biography by now?)

Perl’s is particularly adept at tracing the origins of the sculptural style Calder would later perfect, one that it’s almost become a requirement for art historians to characterize as childlike. You could, as a matter of fact, be forgiven for mistaking some of the brass dogs and ducks Calder designed as an adolescent for his mature masterpieces from the 1940s, and there’s certainly something childlike about Calder’s gentle humor, running all the way from his juvenilia to his late mobiles. His wire caricatures, the defining works of his years in Paris in the late 1920s, rarely give the sense that he is trying to inflict harm on his subjects—as Perl puts it, Calder seems to be using the form as “a method of simplification and intensification,” not “critique.” Worlds away from the temperament of a Goya or a Hogarth, Calder specialized in a curiously defanged type of caricature—not a radical “elites are ridiculous” but a democratic “let’s all be ridiculous together.”

Alexander Calder, Small Feathers (1931)

Depending on your taste in such things, you could admire the generosity of Calder’s vision or become a little impatient with him. For all his friendliness, or maybe because of it, Calder had a knack for annoying his more bellicose peers. In a famous scene from Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), the foppish artist Piggy Logan stages a miniature circus in the apartment of his Upper East Side patrons. There’s no mistaking Wolfe’s disgust with Piggy, modeled on Calder, who Wolfe had met in New York City. Unbeknownst to anyone in Piggy’s audience, the Great Depression has just begun; while Rome burns, he contents himself with a kind of “puny decadence,” willfully denying the sorry state of things. Something of Wolfe’s critique of Calder has survived today, so that even Calder’s admirers tend to diminish his achievements—“major but slight,” as Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times last year.

Where Wolfe takes issue with Calder’s innocent playfulness, Perl finds something refreshingly modest. Buried in his praise there’s a harsh critique of twentieth century art, a frustration with Wolfe’s self-righteous bluster and the nonsense it inspired. In what may be the most revealing passage in the entire book, Perl wonders:

How could an artist like Wolfe have possibly understood Alexander Calder, who wasn’t a tormented personality and who was by nature skeptical of the prophetic voice? What Wolfe missed completely in Calder was his gift for speaking to the world even as he stood somewhat apart from it. Calder was creating a parallel universe with its own laws and logic, but one that enlarged the possibilities of the world he was living in. Wolfe’s response to the catastrophic turn from the 1920s to the 1930s was an art of unabashed engagement and rhetorical hyperbole—raging against the rich, against capitalism, against injustice. Calder’s response to those same events was an art of cool, idealistic possibility—an art of movements and suspended movements, of circulating points, lines, planes, and spheres.

“Unabashed engagement and rhetorical hyperbole”—Perl has spent the better part of his career qualifying the radical possibilities of art, showing how easily “raging against the rich” can devolve into a kind of shallow theater, patronized by the same millionaires who are its supposed targets. Perl shares Calder’s skepticism of self-styled prophets and revolutionaries; he sees their promises to change the world as a seductive dead-end. Calder, then, is the anti-Koons, a calm, level-headed creator whose works stand for themselves, not exactly engaging with politics or capitalism but not pretending to, either. Perl’s response to Calder speaks volumes about his pessimistic view of political art and the contemporary art world. To be regarded as “slight” by the same critics who regard Koons as subversive could be a compliment.


There’s something strange about celebrating an artist for being childlike: no sports commentator would compare a star athlete to a kid, and when a pundit likens the American president to a baby it’s never mistaken for praise. But the likening of artists to children says a lot about the way we conceive of youth, and of creativity. Kids are supposed to have an intuitive grasp of the true and the beautiful, the same ideals great artists are often said to evoke in their work. Worldly experience, the comparison would further seem to imply, tarnishes the artist’s understanding of these ideals, so that the great artist is one who succeeds in “standing somewhat apart” from the world year after year.

It’s worth thinking carefully about these sorts of assumptions in Calder’s case, not simply because Calder’s works are often called childlike but because Calder lived at a time when the childlike was enjoying an enormous vogue among artists and intellectuals. Perl does a superb job of describing the revival of adult interest in toys, puppetry, and the circus in the late 19th and early 20th century. These playful, accessible entertainments inspired figures as disparate as Paul Klee and George Bernard Shaw for similar reasons: they evoked nostalgia for a vanished childhood and, by the same token, for the metaphorical “childhood” of Europe’s pre-industrial past. Understood in this way, Calder’s innocent, playful oeuvre is more politically aware than Calder himself would have let on. His sculptures are no less of a response to their turbulent era than those of Picasso or Duchamp; the difference is that Calder tended to retreat where his peers confronted. His art was, in short, political in its denial of contemporary politics.

Calder’s own childhood—like those of a great many artists whose mature work has the label “childlike” affixed to it—was strikingly adult. He grew up learning how to operate the complex machinery his father used for work, and while he clearly enjoyed drawing and sculpting, his father taught him to think of them as work, not just play. Stirling was also instrumental in teaching his son to think of art as a science, a matter of calculations as well as metaphysical inspirations. Before he ever decided to become an artist, indeed, Calder studied engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology, the alma mater of Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. Perl is careful, however, to distinguish between Calder’s interest in engineering and the appeal it held for the sawdust-dry, executive type: “Calder never had the temperament for the kind of managerial role in engineering that so many Stevens graduates pursued. But he had all the makings of a finger-and-brain-wise mechanic.”

More broadly, Calder’s love affair with engineering points to the general optimism about the progressive power of science that had suffused the late 19th-century avant-garde, and which was going strong even after World War I. In Calder’s earliest oil paintings, dating back to the mid-1920s, electric lights bathe Madison Square Garden and the streets of New York City in the same beguiling glow, the same universal love and good humor. We’re light years away from T. S. Eliot’s “unreal city” (1922) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), two famous minor-key variations on the unchecked urbanization processes that Calder celebrated. The general faith in technology and scientific planning was beginning to fade by the 1920s, Perl writes, and was largely “extinguished by the Depression, the rise of fascism, and the coming of World War II.”

And yet it arguably limped on in Calder’s later work. Many of his famous mobiles originally contained tiny electric motors that set them dancing, even if, half a century later, the motors have mostly ceased to function. (There’s a bloodthirsty debate among Calder fans about whether or not to replace.) One could think of the mobiles as useless machines: cheerful toys that celebrate their maker’s technical training at Stevens but at the same time make gentle fun of it, employing science to no great economic or military end. You can sense the origins of the Macintosh and the iPod in Calder’s pleasant anthropomorphic curves; no less than Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, he believes in the possibilities of a user-friendly machine. No wonder art historians have found it so difficult to situate Calder within his historical moment: at the same time that Picasso, in Guernica, painted the nightmare of technology run amok, Calder treated wire and metal with the same deep tenderness.[1]

One could argue it’s typical of Calder’s warm, all-embracing worldview that he continued using these materials, with their connotations of brutality and dehumanization, where other artists shunned them. But of course, Calder’s art isn’t really as all-embracing as it seems. He doesn’t accept the grim connotations of his media so much as deny they exist; he shakes hands with everyone at the party, but only because he’s already refused so many at the front door. Clement Greenberg’s memorable critique of Paul Klee, an acquaintance of Calder’s from the Paris days, could be said to apply to Calder, as well: “Far from being a protest against the world as it is, his art is an attempt to make himself more comfortable in it; first he rejects it, then, when it has been rendered harmless by negation, he takes it fondly back.”

To put this in perspective, compare Calder’s art with that of his friend Marcel Duchamp. The two were similar in a great many ways: well-traveled, gregarious, impatient with the conventions of “academic” art, pals with seemingly everyone who mattered in the Parisian art scene of the 1920s. Duchamp’s name is always cited in articles on precursors to the mobile; ever the wordsmith, he originally suggested the word “mobile” to Calder, and some of his own readymades have moving parts. Yet nobody would ever confuse a Duchamp readymade for a Calder mobile. Duchamp’s oeuvre is unavoidably conceptual, stimulating the viewer’s ideas about art, not her delight with the beauty of the object. In their ironic ugliness, the readymades extend a middle finger to an idea of “retinal art” that Calder never disavowed. As the poet Octavio Paz wrote, “They are ideas, or, better still, relations—in the physical sense, and also in the sexual and linguistic; they are propositions and, by virtue of the law of meta-irony, counterpropositions. They are symbol-machines.”

Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer (original 1914, lost, replica from 1964)

Calder’s useless machines seem to offer a whimsical escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Duchamp’s symbol-machines ridicule everyday life. They’re capable of moving but do not move; they perform, instead, what Paz called a “sublime indifference,” a kind of worker’s strike against an increasingly industrialized, mechanized world. Calder’s sculptures seem artfully juvenile; Duchamp’s are unmistakably adult, distinguished by their nasty streak and even, for some, their sexual undercurrents.

For Paz, as well as many other critics, Duchamp succeeded in creating an “anti-art” without simply recoiling from the modern world. More importantly, he did all this without becoming a false prophet; without ever falling into the “rhetorical hyperbole” for which Perl faults Wolfe. By the mid-1920s, when Calder met him, Duchamp had largely renounced art-making in favor of chess. He spent years of his life studying the game, wrote some journalism, dabbled in filmmaking but completed no important works. Duchamp’s readymades of the 1910s and 20s had posed an infamous, unanswerable challenge to art; producing more art would only have diluted his point. Understood in a slightly different way, Duchamp’s renunciation of artistry was itself a decades-long performance art piece, a vow of silence to ensure his early pieces would remain untainted by self-interest.

Perl, unsurprisingly, has been quick to question these interpretations. He admires Calder’s placidity, at least in part, because he believes that Duchamp’s sardonic anti-art was doomed from the start, sending artists off on a path of increasingly grandiose, and nonsensical, renunciations. To the extent that the readymades “succeeded,” they did so by ending a genre, not founding one:

For Duchamp the readymade was a private avowal, an act of inwardness, an effort to see what art was and was not and could and couldn’t be for him […] Art, Duchamp worried, is “a habit-forming drug,” and with the readymade he somehow hoped to break the habit, which is perhaps what every artist hopes to do by inventing art anew.

True enough and, as usual, well said. But from this it doesn’t follow that the readymade was not also intended as a public performance, and a performance that would leave a mark on other artists’ careers. The only legacy Perl seems prepared to attribute to Duchamp is a contemptible one: giving Koons and his peers carte blanche to copy and steal as much as they liked. He seems unwilling to celebrate, or acknowledge, the healthier influence of Duchamp on such figures as Banksy, JR, Yoko Ono, Ai Wei Wei, or, moving beyond the realm of art, Andy Kaufman, J.D. Salinger, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Jean-Luc Godard.

Wildly different though these figures are, they share a willingness to use art to interrogate the limits of art, and they mostly do so without hypocrisy or grandiosity. Sometimes, their experiments have led them to challenge the concept of originality, drawing inspiration from random chance or reproducing other people’s work unattributed. In other cases, they’ve used performance art and self-reference to make their own lives key elements in their oeuvres (think, for instance, of the way Salinger’s own retreat from public life makes The Catcher in the Rye a hundred times richer). These people, not Koons and Co., are Duchamp’s rightful descendants. They’re also, unmistakably, some of the most compelling creative figures in living memory: their appropriations and renunciations and challenges to the idea of “art” remain, contra Perl, nimbly precise.[2]

Once you accept that it’s possible to question “art” without becoming a false prophet, it also becomes easier to see Calder’s limitations as an artist. Long after his peers had grown deeply skeptical of the modern means of production, Calder set metal and electricity in motion with the sweetest innocence. While wars raged and societies rose and fell, he continued to refine his delicate experiments, settling into a complacent style. And then, something strange happened: the author of light, playful mobiles began to win commissions for massive sculptures in concrete and steel, for airports and universities and skyscrapers. Because he never quite invented art anew, Calder became an institution, and an accomplice to other institutions.

Artists are under no obligation to reinvent art. And yet Perl, overcompensating for what he sees as the gross excesses of contemporary art, makes a little too much of Calder’s unheeded example (and there’s something funny about devoting so many hundreds of pages, no matter how well-researched, to an artist who abhorred ponderous overanalyzing). The fascination evoked in The Conquest of Time is that of a road untraveled, of a world that might have been if Calder, not Duchamp, had been the godfather of 20th century art. Regardless of what should or shouldn’t have happened, even Perl would have to admit that the rise of conceptual anti-art has been one of the key events in the Western cultural history of the last hundred years. It would be myopic to deny that anti-art has produced its share of brilliant innovators, just as it would be foolish to deny that it’s produced some overrated hacks, too—but then again, as a smart man said, ninety percent of everything is crap. In the face of all this, Alexander Calder lives on as a glorious oddity, more frustrating and probably even more fascinating than Perl gives him credit for. While the world around him grew darker and wilder, his private world of points and planes and spheres stayed exactly the same.


[1] Compare Guernica with Calder’s Mercury Fountain, both created for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris Expo and both intended as a form of protest against Spanish fascism. Picasso’s mural is unmistakably anti-war; Calder’s fountain confronts the war only indirectly, and it’s consistent with Perl’s characterization for Calder to have written, “I did the Mercury Fountain for the fun of doing it, and it was only subsequently that I became fond of the Spaniards as a nation.”

[2] Perl’s criticism of Ai Wei Wei, whom he simplistically characterizes as “a man with a quick mind, indomitable energy, and no particular aptitude for art,” is particularly revealing: Perl sees in Ai Wei Wei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn “a streak of ugly nihilism” and wonders aloud whether the artist uses his documentary subjects as “pawns in his own bid for fame.” You can call Ai Wei Wei any number of things, but nihilistic he clearly isn’t. It’s as if Perl has become so weary of sub-Duchampian charlatans that he doesn’t know what to do when the genuine article comes along.


Jackson Arn

Jackson Arn’s
writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The RumpusPublic Books, The Point, and other publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 29th, 2018.