To do the Circus
Always taciturn on the nature of his art, Alexander Calder once quipped, “That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.”1 He went about his work in the spirit of a dogged Yankee—practical, no-nonsense, and straightforward—and sidestepped the elegiac.
Or did he?
Writing to his friend Keith Warner in 1946, Calder remarked, “Wish you were to be here Sat. Sept. 7—as I have decided to do the CIRCUS. I have to show the children how to run it so that they can carry on.”2 By then, Calder had largely retired Cirque Calder (1926–31), the sprawling performance piece he’d made from wire, cloth, string, and innumerable other found objects while living amongst the avant-garde of late 1920s Paris. The work gained him his first significant recognition, but from the 1930s on he rarely performed it, and when he did, the performance generally coincided with a special event or occasion. This intimate 1946 presentation, in his Roxbury, Connecticut studio for his wife Louisa and two daughters, Sandra and Mary, who were at the time eleven and seven years old, was a rarity. Perhaps fearing the intricacies of the Cirque would be lost on two little girls, he followed this ephemeral preface a few years later with an extraordinary document, a hand drawn “instructional manual” that provided detailed diagrams and directions for operating the show. On its cover, dated “6 Sept. 49,” he dedicated it to “Medusa [his nickname for Louisa], Sandra, & Mary.” Unfolding the page like an oversize origami reveals precise instructions for Calder’s big top. The centerfold is addressed again to his daughters, and dated “29 Aug ’49,” a week earlier than the cover, indicating how much careful thought Calder put into the drawings before bestowing them to the girls. It’s signed simply, “From Pop.” The document is all at once a practical guide, a love letter to his family, and a meditation on life and legacy from an artist who allegedly shunned these notions.
Sandra and Mary never did perform the circus. How could they, for it was Calder himself who was the Cirque. The instruction manual is as close as you can get to the map of a soul.
- Alexander Calder, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, no. 2 (Spring 1951), p. 8.
- Calder to Keith Warner, 30 August 1946, Calder Foundation archives.
JESSICA HOLMES is a New York-based writer and critic who contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.