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How Alexander Calder Sold the World on Moving Art

A biography of the ubiquitous, top-selling modern artist highlights the legwork that went into creating a new form of art.
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Illustration: Matija Medved

The artist Alexander Calder died 41 years ago, but today he seems more famous than ever: In 2017 he’s been featured in four solo exhibitions, and in November no fewer than 31 of his colorful mobiles, massive sculptures, prints, and paintings will be auctioned at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. According to Artnet, his art has gone under the gavel more than 10,400 times; his record sale was set in 2014 at Christie’s in New York, when a hanging mobile went for almost $26 million.

A biography by the art historian and critic Jed Perl, Calder: The Conquest of Time, attempts to explain how a single artist could come to so completely dominate the field of American modernist sculpture. The writing practically hums as Perl describes Calder’s work, which he clearly adores, and the text has reams of novel insights: We learn about Calder’s indebtedness to the painter Piet Mondrian—not an obvious connection—and that it was Marcel Duchamp who suggested Calder describe his hanging sculptures as mobiles, a term that came to connote an entire artform. The book’s most illuminating portions highlight how closely interwoven the artist’s social life was with his professional success. Through his connections and his efforts to market his own work, he helped to create, then cement, a type of artistic fame that persists to this day.