High-Wire Act

James Thrall Soby/© 2017 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Alexander Calder and Margaret French dancing while Louisa Calder plays the accordion, Farmington, Connecticut, 1936

Alexander Calder—Sandy to all who knew him—was deceptively easygoing: a bulky, lumbering, slow-spoken figure with big, capable hands and a sleepy smile. Poise, balance, and equilibrium were his priorities, and he could be ruthless in their pursuit. You get some idea of his disruptive potential from the strict rules laid down by Pierre Matisse before he agreed to mount a first show of Calder’s elegant, austere abstractions in his New York gallery: “There won’t be any wall cracking or floor nailing, or ceiling bursting and I have to be sure that my carpet is not going to be eated [sic] up by your wild menagerie.”

Sandy was the third Alexander Calder, son and grandson of émigré sculptors, stern Scottish forebears apparently descended from a tombstone-cutter in the granite city of Aberdeen. His Calder grandfather made the massive bronze statue of William Penn that presides high above Philadelphia on top of the dome of City Hall. His grandmother (who came from Glasgow) said that each of her six sons was the result of rape. One of them was Sandy’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder, who married a painter called Nanette Lederer, a secular Jew, which made their two children technically Jewish. Sandy and his elder sister posed for their portraits at home in stone and on canvas from infancy, “bewitched,” as Jed Perl quaintly puts it, “drawn into art’s magic circle from which neither of them ever strayed.”

Sandy started off as he meant to go on, energetic and experimental. At the age of seven he was catching horned toads and racing them, harnessed to matchbox chariots. A year or two later he made himself a suit of armor—shield, breastplate, sword, lance, and helmet—so he could ride out as Sir Tristram, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. At nine he got his first set of tools and a workshop of his own in the cellar. A self-portrait in crayon from around about this time shows him at work with fretsaw, drill, hammer, and pliers. “I was never satisfied with them,” he said of his toys. “I always embellished and expanded their repertoire with additions made of steel wire, copper, and other materials.”

His movements were as clumsy as his fingers were skillful. He was the kind of boy who couldn’t catch a ball but had no problem drawing a perfect curve. A Dog and a Duck, cut with shears from a brass sheet when he was nine or ten, show an impressive degree of stylized sophistication. As a teenager he criss-crossed his bedroom with strings for opening the window, switching the lights on and off, pulling up or lowering the shades. On cleaning day, “a stormy scene always…

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