June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

PBS (Wed., June 17, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

“How do you know when you’re finished?” a TV interviewer once asked Alexander Calder about his kinetic, often cryptic, free-form sculpture. “When it’s dinnertime,” cracked the taciturn Calder. This American Masters profile of the artist (who died in 1976 at 78) shows him to be not only self-effacing (to deflect criticism, he referred to his pieces as objects rather than art) but also eccentric (“He didn’t own a suit; he had two wool red shirts—and that’s what he wore,” recalls a friend) and astoundingly prolific. Besides creating his signature wire-suspended mobiles and monumental steel stabiles (some as high as seven stories), the Pennsylvania-born Calder churned out jewelry, posters, wood carvings and tapestries; designed stage sets for Martha Graham; choreographed a 19-minute ballet; and even painted two DC-8 jets in brightly swirling patterns for Braniff Airlines.

But the most revealing segment of this incisive documentary shows Calder, at 55, as the boyishly enthusiastic ringmaster of his own circus, playing with his wire-sculpted miniature elephants, acrobats, even a knife thrower. “With the circus he was in his element. He was a big kid,” says his friend, playwright Arthur Miller. Still, the bemused audience in Calder’s Paris flat in the 1920s included a who’s who of modern masters, including Cocteau, Miró and Mondrian (whom Calder called a major influence on his art).

This hour captures the boundless optimism and energy of its subject. Or, as Miller says of a typically playful Calder mobile, “You just feel better for having stared at it.”

Bottom Line: A superb tribute to a perennially youthful old master

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