On Wednesday, April 3rd, the world-renowned art critic Jed Perl spoke to a packed room of Stevens students, faculty, alumni, leadership, and guests about one of the university’s most famous and well-loved alumni, Alexander Calder.
The Samuel C. Williams Library hosted the event to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Calder’s graduation from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1919 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He later went on to become one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century with his dramatic mobiles and stabiles sculptures.
Introduced by Library Director Linda Beninghove, Jed Perl’s lecture focused on Calder’s time at Stevens and how it had a lasting effect on the artist's life. If one looks at Calder’s mature work, “so much seems to spring from the education he had as a mechanical engineer at Stevens,” Perl said, pointing to several of Calder’s wire sculptures, stabiles, and mobiles in his presentation. “Issues such as the properties of metals . . . and how you put them together and questions of physics, motion, mass, and the dynamics of movement,” are present in all of Calder's works. But, Perl warns, “it’s more complicated than that.”
Perl detailed that the fermentation of Calder’s creativity began early in his childhood, growing up in a family of artists where art was discussed constantly. He started creating animal figurines when he was a young boy. But even though he excelled in school and was creative, Calder was unfocused and “lackadaisical.” He decided to attend college not out of ambition but because he saw that his sister was having such a great time attending school. At sixteen, he picked Stevens on the advice of a friend, and his parents were moving to New York City and wanted him to stay close to home.
Perl reflected on how Calder was a member of the lacrosse and football teams even though he was not very athletic. He immersed himself in the life of the college and became a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. He loved the view of the Hudson River from his bedroom in the “Stevens Castle”, former home of the Stevens family and later used as a dormitory for students.
Perl introduced a photo found among Calder's papers of a campus activity that made an impression on Calder: the annual tradition of the Cremation of Calculus, where students would don costumes and hold a mock trial before burning the dreaded course in effigy at the end of the spring semester.
Perl, who wrote the biography Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940, also discussed how some applications of kinetics, parity, and physics were represented in Calder’s work because he understood how to articulate and master “the forces of nature” in his art. Perl’s follow-up to part one entitled, Calder: The Conquest of Space: The Later Year: 1940-1976, is due to be published in spring 2020.
The lecture was followed by a thought-provoking Q&A with audience members and then a reception in the Babbio Center Atrium. Some of the questions from the audience focused on how education in the arts is important at a science, engineering, and technology school like Stevens.
Alexander Calder’s work exemplifies how a science and engineering education can have a deep impact on the arts, too.
Jed Perl and Samuel C. Williams Library Director, Linda Beninghove.