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Calder: the Conquest of Space : The Later Years: 1940-1976
Calder: the Conquest of Space : The Later Years: 1940-1976
Click to enlarge
Author(s): Perl, Jed
ISBN No.: 9780451494115
Pages: 688
Year: 202004
Format: Trade Cloth (Hard Cover)
Price: £41.88
Dispatch delay: Dispatched between 7 to 15 days
Status: Available From Our Suppliers (Active record)

PROLOGUE GRAND RAPIDS 1969 I On June 14, 1969, a bright, cloudless Saturday, Alexander Calder and his wife, Louisa, were in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the dedication of La Grande vitesse, the enormous steel sculpture he had made for the plaza in front of the recently completed City Hall. Calder, who was seventy that June, had been dreaming about a new kind of public monument since soon after he became an abstract artist early in the 1930s. But it was only in the 1960s that those dreams were becoming realities. The times were nothing if not dramatic, and the unprecedented arrival of a colossal abstract sculpture in the heart of a conservative midwestern city was just one more small twist in a decade full of surprises. The summer of 1967 had become the Summer of Love; the anti- war movement had brought down a president; a month after the dedication of La Grande vitesse a man walked on the moon. Although much too old to be part of the decade''s youthquake, the Calders embraced the idealistic spirit of the 1960s. The immense abstract monuments that Calder was beginning to create were as bold, as wild, as brilliant, as strange, as idiosyncratic, and as unprecedented as the times in which they were produced. A good friend, thinking of Calder''s indefatigable experimentation, wrote that some of his new work suggested an "adventurous and carefree student-like march.


" On the day of the dedication of La Grande vitesse, some two thousand people gathered in downtown Grand Rapids to welcome the artist and his art. The mood was celebratory, with children cavorting at the foot of the monument. The local symphony played a work for woodwind and percussion composed for the occasion by Aaron Copland. Copland and Calder knew each other a little and shared the steadiness of purpose that American modernists needed to forge an art with international ramifications. La Grande vitesse, with its arching and curving forms and coat of bright red paint, was a colossus unlike any the United States had ever seen. It was a new kind of urban landmark. The steel plates--they weighed a total of forty-two tons and were locked together with hundreds of bolts--had a muscular energy. Some midwestern skeptics might have dismissed La Grande vitesse, erected as part of the Vandenberg Center in downtown Grand Rapids, as a monumental joke.


But if Calder''s sculpture hadn''t been something of an enigma, it wouldn''t have been so exhilarating. By embracing La Grande vitesse, the citizens of Grand Rapids were also embracing the experimental spirit of the avant-garde. Charles Olson, a prophetic voice in modern American poetry, had once spoken of his country as "a complex of occasions" that created a geometry of a "spatial nature." La Grande vitesse was a revolutionary geometry, and to move around it was to encounter a "complex of occasions"-- occasions that the men and women of Grand Rapids were only beginning to grasp. What Calder had created was an imaginative exaltation. Calder had a fine time in Grand Rapids, although he afterward confessed to an old friend, the architect Josep Lluis Sert, that he had been a little reluctant about traveling to Michigan for the dedication. He had no ties to Grand Rapids, to Michigan, or for that matter to the Midwest. Arriving in this city on the Grand River some thirty miles east of Lake Michigan, he almost immediately asked to be shown the river; he wanted to get the lay of the land.


On being handed the keys to the city during the dedication, this serious man who was perfectly willing to adopt the role of the joker if it might lighten the mood at an official event, shot back, "But will it open cans?" Calder''s mother, Nanette Lederer, had been born in Milwaukee, just across Lake Michigan from Grand Rapids, but while still a young woman she had left the Midwest to become an artist in Philadelphia. Calder certainly had some sense of the part that Grand Rapids had already played in the history of American design; since the late nineteenth century this had been America''s Furniture City. Twenty years earlier, Calder had fielded an inquiry from Baker Furniture, one of the big outfits in town, about making a mobile for their art gallery. Nothing came of it--and Calder ended up writing to his dealer at the time, Curt Valentin, to complain about "those sons of bitches, who make fake antiques in Grand Rapids." What he may not have known was that sixty years before La Grande vitesse was inaugurated, Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a house for Meyer May, the president of a Grand Rapids clothing emporium. Wright''s Meyer May House was a work of stirring originality, with a mass, a dynamism, and a visual drama that bear comparison with some of Calder''s monumental works. There was a lot more to Grand Rapids than "fake antique furniture." In the mid-twentieth century, the Herman Miller company in nearby Zeeland was at the forefront of progressive furniture design and production.


That was where some of the most imaginative furniture created by Charles and Ray Eames was being produced. As it happened, the Herman Miller logo was based on a sculpture by Calder, the 1939 Spiny, as seen in a dramatically silhouetted photograph by Calder''s friend Herbert Matter. Among those in attendance at the dedication of La Grande vitesse was Robert Blaich, the director of design at Herman Miller; he had been a member of the committee that approached Calder about creating a work for the city. As part of the celebrations Calder was given an Eames lounge chair. II The story of how Calder came to make La Grande vitesse is a story about the growing acceptance of avant-garde ideas and ideals in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. This was, among many other things, a generational process, which was vividly on display early on the day of the inauguration, when Sandy, as everybody called him, with his aging, open face and wild aureole of white hair, was seated at a press conference next to an elegant, beautifully coiffed woman by the name of Nancy Mul- nix, who was less than half his age. She was married to LeVant Mulnix III, the scion of an old Grand Rapids family; everybody called him Lee. Nancy, a modern-day ambassador without portfolio, was a housewife with three young children who managed to turn a long-standing admiration for Calder''s work into a campaign that ultimately transformed Grand Rapids.


She was, as Sandy had realized as he got to know her in the couple of years that La Grande vitesse was in the planning stages, a woman of intelligence, wit, and spirit. It was to Nancy that he turned again and again during the creation of La Grande vitesse. There were bound to be complications, since the work was fabricated in France, where Sandy and his wife were living much of the time, before being shipped to Michigan and assembled in Grand Rapids. "How late is Muskegon port open?" he wrote to Nancy in September 1968. when it came time to set up the work the month before the dedication, it was to Nancy that he sent instructions. "With 2 channel irons two channels are needed, one on each side," he explained, along with a diagram. And then he followed up, "You tell ''em, Nancy." There was something disarmingly, to some maybe even suspiciously, off- beat about the way Calder and his wife lived their lives, but Nancy was on their wavelength.


In the late 1960s, when many saw the counterculture as a threat to American values, the Calders could look like a countercultural grandpa and grandma. A young artist who knew them in New York was drawn to the old artist''s ubiquitous red shirt and beat-up tweed jacket and his wife''s shoulder-length gray hair and flowing, folkloric clothes--which he described, perhaps only half whimsically, as her "hippie garb. Now, in June 1969, all of Grand Rapids was getting to know the Calders. As Nancy Mulnix was by then well aware, it was difficult to dislike them if you were actually acquainted. Gerald R. Ford, the Republican who represented the congressional district in Washington and was the House minority leader, was one of the speakers at the dedication. The Republican imprimatur couldn''t have appealed to Sandy and Louisa, especially in their heightened state of political awareness; over the past four or so years they had become increasingly committed to the movement to end U.S.


involvement in the war in Vietnam. But of course, Ford had been instrumental in lining up government funding for La Grande vitesse. Nobody needed to tell Sandy Calder that life was complicated. Betty Ford, Jerry''s wife, had as a young woman studied dance with Martha Graham and performed with her auxiliary company. That had been around the time that Calder was designing some sets for Graham. Years later, when the Calders and the Fords crossed paths again, Sandy and Betty talked about Martha. Calder understood that the decision to place a vast abstract sculpture in Grand Rapids had been controversial; that may have been why he was a little hesitant about making the trip to Michigan. He knew that some in the city''s Republican circles were suspicious of him.


He was, after all, a staunch opponent of American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Although an American citizen, he was also open to accusations of being anti-American, as he lived much of the year in France. The author of a letter to the Grand Rapids Press had complained that "his sculpture is as American as French pastry" and that "he is as foreign to Grand Rapids as is Charles de Gaulle and certainly as foreign to Grand Rapids culture." To this someone else responded that Calder voted in the United States and paid federal taxes. That Calder had insisted on.


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