Art Through Time: A Global View
The Urban Experience Art: La grande vitesse
Many American urban centers were in decline in the 1960s.
Federal and local government leaders in cities across the country hoped that public art would be a way to reestablish struggling downtown areas as attractive destinations and sources of civic pride. In 1969, with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts—then a relatively new institution—the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought an important work of art to its urban landscape. As part of the local government’s urban renewal initiative, the city commissioned American artist Alexander Calder to create La grande vitesse for the plaza in front of Grand Rapids’ city hall. Calder’s playfully titled piece (La grande vitesse is a rough French translation of “grand rapids”) is what the artist referred to as a stabile, or non-moving sculpture, as opposed to a mobile, or moving sculpture, the form for which he is perhaps best known. He created this particular stabile out of flat sheets of steel riveted and welded together in an industrial process similar to that employed in ship construction. This industrial fabrication, characteristic of Calder’s works, offers an engaging counterpoint to his curving, organic forms.
The bright red, forty-two-ton piece has had a lasting impact on the city of Grand Rapids. In addition to honoring the artist by renaming the plaza where the piece stands “Calder Plaza,” the city holds an annual arts festival on his birthday. La grande vitesse itself has become a municipal mascot of sorts. A design based on the sculpture’s silhouette appears on street signs, city government letterhead, and is even emblazoned on the sides of garbage trucks and other vehicles.
John Beardsley, Director, Garden & Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks
“People still approach sculpture in a public space as if it had a commemorative function, as if it were symbolic of shared ideals. So, in a sense, people still have very traditional expectations of what art in the public space should look like. And that’s not what artists do anymore. So even these things that are abstract can have a way of assuming a social role and can become icons in the visual environment of the city. I think back to a sculpture by Alexander Calder that was installed in Grand Rapids in the 1960s and that sculpture, and the silhouette of that sculpture, now adorns city stationary, city garbage trucks. So it’s become an icon or an emblem of the city.”
Bauerlein, Mark, and Ellen Grantham, eds. National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965–2008. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009.
Calder Foundation Web site. http://www.calder.org.
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Finkelpearl, Tom. “Art Reenters the American City.” In The American Century: Art & Culture 1950–2000, edited by Lisa Phillips. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999.
Marter, Joan M. “Alexander Calder’s Stabiles: Monumental Public Sculpture in America.” American Art Journal 11.3 (July 1979): 75–85.
West Michigan Sculptures – SculpturesitesGR.org (Grand Rapids public sculpture website). http://www.sculpturesitesgr.org.