Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was the son and grandson of sculptors, but when he went to school he studied engineering. Later, committing himself to art, he chose painting, like his mother. It took a few years before he accepted his fate and turned to sculpture. This brief period of indecision is the single moment of angst in the life of one of the twentieth century’s most joyful and original modern artists. Inheriting his father’s dexterity as well as his “playful, lively, fantastic” tendencies, Calder (Knopf, $55) dedicated his life to animating the inanimate. In Jed Perl’s lively, affectionate, and thorough account to 1940, Calder’s life was pretty much on track from the start. With the avant-garde “always part” of it, he grew up in the artistic circles of both France and the U.S., a peripatetic life he continued. He was an incorrigible punster (see his work A Merry Can Ballet) and everything he did was infused with humor. Perl traces Calder’s jeux d’esprit from the early portraits and objects he made by bending wire, works that “suggested rapidly executed line drawings leaping into the third dimension,” to the elaborate Cirque Calder that was meant to be performed, not just looked at, and on to his abstractions, which were also a “menagerie…of unexpected forms” in motion, and which Perl, in the spirit of his subject, describes as “motions galumphing, jagged, swishy, swirly.” As playful as they were serious, these mobiles (named by Duchamp) and stabiles (so-called by Jean Arp) revolutionized sculpture, taking a stationary form, making it move, and creating new relationships between the viewer and the art. Perl is tireless in tracing Calder’s influences, which included Miró, Klee, Hélion, Saul Steinberg, Mondrian, Edgar Varèse, Martha Graham, and Malcolm Cowley. All were his friends, and Perl’s engaging, scholarly, and buoyant biography—and its 400-plus photos—makes it easy to see why.