Many people refer to the large orange metal sculpture in downtown Grand Rapids as simply “The Calder”. It was the work of Alexander Calder.
The downtown sculpture, called “La Grande Vitesse”, was the first public artwork funded by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art in Public Places program. The sculpture was created in Tours, France and then assembled in what is now Calder Plaza in 1969. The sculpture is 43 feet high, 54 feet long, and 30 feet wide. It weighs 42 tons and is painted in Calder’s signature bright red paint. The title “La Grande Vitesse” is French for “the great rapidity”, which can also be interpreted as meaning “great rapids”.
Another design by Alexander Calder was painted on the roof of the Kent County Administration Building. This 127 square foot red, black and white roof was completed in 1974. The roof can be seen from the space. It was renovated in 2016 by Great Lakes Systems.
Plane “Flying Colors of the United States”
There was also another work of art by Alexander Calder on display here in Grand Rapids, but not many people knew about it. It was a model airplane painted by Calder. The aircraft features the star flag and Calder’s signature on the tail of the aircraft. The model airplane, with a wingspan of 74″, was made in honor of the bicentennial of the United States.
Originally commissioned by Braniff International Airways, the artwork titled “Flying Colors of the United States” was recreated on a real Boeing 727 and opened in November 1975 in Washington, DC, with First Lady Betty Ford who presided over the ceremony. The artwork was donated to the city in 1975 after the freshly painted Boeing 727 flew into Grand Rapids two days after it was destroyed. (Calder died a year later.)
For many years, the model airplane was displayed on the first floor of City Hall at 300 Monroe Ave. NW to downtown Grand Rapids. It will now be prominently displayed in the lobby of Gerald R. Ford International Airport. The new display was unveiled on Wednesday, February 23, 2020. Below is a photo of Tory Richardson, President and CEO of Ford Airport, Dan Koorndyk, Chairman of the Airport Authority Board of Directors, and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss standing at next to the new exhibit featuring Alexander Calder’s “Flying Colors of the United States”.
Also exhibited for many years at the airport, a painted wooden model of “La Grande Vitesse”. It was moved to a new location at the airport last September. It now sits at the east end of the lobby with the “Flying Colors of the United States” display at the other end of the hall.
Who was Alexander Calder?
Alexander Calder was born in Lawntown, Pennsylvania on July 22, 1898. He was an American sculptor known for his innovative mobiles, static “stabiles”, and monumental public sculptures. His work is in permanent collections around the world. According to Wikipedia, his art is in the “Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, has the largest collection of his works of art. Other museum collections include the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Center Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.” Alexander Calder died on November 11, 1976 at the age of 78.
Read more about Alexander Calder on the Calder Foundation website.
See what Grand Rapids looked like almost 100 years ago
A look back at what the city of Grand Rapids looked like in the 1920s. The images are from a movie called “Grand Rapids Gateway to the Playground of a Nation and the Furniture Capital of America”. The film was used to get businesses and organizations to hold their conventions in the city of Grand Rapids, MI.