Author Q&A: Open Book with Jed Perl

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Alexander Calder was one of the 20th century's most important sculptors. Yet, four decades after his 1976 death, there hadn't been a biography about the artist known for his mobiles.

"Calder: The Conquest of Time" by Jed Perl (2017, Knopf) filled that niche. Was the author surprised that Calder's life hadn't received a book-length treatment before his own?

"It's fairly unusual given he died in 1976," Perl said by phone on Monday. "The family, I think, wisely felt that there was something to be said for letting the dust settle and having some research done, some art historical research, having more exhibitions, before somebody really plunged into the task of putting the whole story together."

The book examines the first part of Calder's career, dating to 1940; a second volume covering the latter portion of his life is due out in the spring of 2020. The first volume has received mixed reviews.

"Perl has assembled a vast, almost ragbag amount of data, not all of it riveting, and has woven commentary in and around it," writes Holland Cotter for The New York Times. "As a result, the narrative has a frustratingly digressive pace, though even when we feel we've wandered far from the central path the writer's lucid style persuades us to stick with him."

Perl, who has written for The New Republic among other publications, followed the Berkshire Museum's deaccessioning of Calder's "Double Arc and Sphere." On May 16, Calder's grandson Alexander S. C. Rower bought the 1932 work on behalf of the Calder Foundation. When asked about the Berkshire Museum's decision to sell Calder's art and other pieces, Perl offered the following thoughts:

"I'm a great believer in preserving the history of museums as part of the history of culture and social life in this country, and one of the fascinating things about the Berkshire Museum is that it was right at the forefront of exhibiting Calder's work. He showed there in the early '30s. And they bought [his] work. ... So, the Berkshire Museum has a history with Calder that intertwines its history and his early career as an abstract artist in America. One of the little stories I learned in working on the biography was that the poet Elizabeth Bishop — who's, at this point, one of the most admired of American 20th century poets — she became friends with Calder later on when he was visiting Brazil and she was living there. She told him that she had seen his work when she was very young at the Berkshire Museum in the '30s. For me, it saddens me that they couldn't somehow find a way to preserve those works in the museum."

Perl added that Calder's parents lived in Pittsfield. Today, Perl will chat with a friend of the Calder family, Stanley Cohen, during a lecture called "Calder in Conversation — Jed Perl and Stanley Cohen on Friendship with a Legend" at Casana T House in Hillsdale, N.Y. (6 p.m., reservations required at casanatea.com; admission is free, though dinner afterwards is $30). Cohen's partner, Carrie Chen, founded Casana, which will house works by Calder in the days leading up to the lecture, according to a press release.

Perl answered some questions about his favorite books in the run-up to the event.

QWhat were some of the best books you read in preparing to write this biography?

AI think probably the best artist biography of recent years is John Richardson's "A Life of Picasso." But I also have found a lot of support for my work, for ... enriching my thinking, in looking at biographies that are not biographies of visual artists. I'm a huge admirer of Richard Ellmann's biographies of James Joyce ["James Joyce"] and Oscar Wilde ["Oscar Wilde"]. I think those are really rich books about creative people. And, going back a little further, Henry James is a novelist and writer I adore. There's a really great biography of Henry James by Leon Edel ["Henry James: A Life"], which came out decades ago, [that] I think is an extraordinary achievement.

QWhat is your favorite nonfiction book about art?

AIt's an interesting question. It's hard to choose. I really love the essays of Meyer Schapiro. There's a collection of his essays called "Modern Art," which I think is just a really amazing book about C zanne and Mondrian and other people.

QWhat is your favorite art-related novel?

AI think the thing I go back to is — it's sort of a long short story, a novella — "The Unknown Masterpiece" by [Honor de] Balzac, which is ... set in the 17th century. It's about a great painter who kind of goes mad. That's a book that was much admired by C zanne and Picasso and de Kooning. A lot of artists have found it really interesting.

QWhat books are currently on your nightstand?

AI just read the other day this new thing by Michael Chabon, "Pops," about being a father. He's an interesting novelist. It's a series of essays. ... I enjoyed that, being a father myself. ... There's a collection of the essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, who's a writer who I admire enormously. [The collection is called "The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick.] It came out about maybe eight months ago. ... That's a book that I've been looking at that I really love.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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