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Public sculptures: the art of the city

Prominent pieces provide downtown identity and inspiration.

By Joseph Antenucci Becherer
Photography by Michael Buck

This column traditionally looks at single works of art in order to understand and appreciate their inherent significance. But this month provides a look at the past and dreams about the future.

Over the last several years, many of the most prominent sculptures in downtown Grand Rapids have been featured. However, the opportunity to consider them collectively is rewarding and inspiring. Hopefully, it establishes a course to spend a wonderful day experiencing the urban center in a meaningful, artful way.

Alexander Calder’s stabile “La Grande Vitesse” (1969), pictured at above, is the cornerstone of this community’s artistic patrimony. Translated as “the great swiftness,” the sculpture honors the Grand River and has fittingly become the city’s identifying symbol. New York has “Lady Liberty” and St. Louis the colossal arch, but truth be told, Calder and this sculpture are held in much higher regard by the international art world. Both the artist and the sculpture are regularly featured in books on art history.

La Grande Vitesse’s importance, however, must be experienced to be appreciated. Walk around the plaza. Look at the relationship of this object in its space. Note the carefully planned interaction between the sculpture and the neighboring city and county buildings. Let your eyes cascade along the contours. Now walk under the sculpture. Take in the color, space and grandeur of the scale. For an additional treat, venture over to the Grand Rapids Art Museum and stand beneath Calder’s graceful “Red Rudder.” Think about the bond these two sculptures share, as well as their dramatic differences.

A dynamic counterpoint to Calder is Mark di Suvero’s “Motu Viget” (1977). Located just northwest of “La Grande Vitesse” behind the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building, it has become the beloved talisman of the annual Festival of the Arts. The sculptor is one of America’s greatest living artists and he has strong ties to Grand Rapids going back to the early 1970s when he was featured in the landmark exhibition “Sculpture off the Pedestal.” The title “Motu Viget” comes from the city’s motto: “strength through activity.” In this work, di Suvero transforms — but does not disguise — industrial materials. The sculpture’s energy comes from its pyramidal design, which places before us bold diagonals and a large tire gondola, beckoning us to swing and experience a work of art in dimensions that most artists would have never contemplated. To appreciate and understand di Suvero more thoroughly, stop by Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park to see his works sited across the grounds.

For a very different experience, walk over to “Ecliptic” (2001) by Maya Lin at Rosa Parks Circle. Designed and built in celebration of the millennium, this is not a sculpture in the traditional sense, but sculpture with multiple elements that need to be experienced in order to be understood. While Calder allows one to move around and perhaps walk through his work and di Suvero adds the novel opportunity to physically swing or glide through space and time within his sculpture, Lin has subtly defined a place.

The theme is the community’s connection to the river: Water is represented in liquid, vapor and (in winter) frozen forms. The liquid and the vapor are connected to two granite pools that skirt the large central plaza, which can be transformed into an elegant ice rink. “Ecliptic” is not about a single element or even the convergence of multiple elements, as in either the Calder or di Suvero examples, but about the thoughtful integration of elements across a large urban space. However, like the other masters, Lin references this community in her creation.

In a little more than three decades, these three works attest to significant developments in contemporary art history. What about the future? When you are moving in or around downtown Grand Rapids, imagine the possibilities for future works of public art (paintings, mosaics, sculptures) of the international caliber of Calder, di Suvero and Lin. What incredible and immeasurable vitality this would bring to the reputation of this city and its viability as a must-experience community. If each major building project realized in recent years integrated a significant work of public art — or better yet, if each of the major building projects underway or on the table were to make such a commitment — Grand Rapids would be poised to outshine most American cities.

Is it possible? This is a “can-do” city. Look at it this way: When Alexander Calder came to Grand Rapids in 1969, there was no Amway Grand Plaza, Van Andel Institute, Van Andel Arena, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, public library expansion, Gerald R. Ford Museum, nor any cultural or educational facilities on the western bank of the Grand River. Nor were there downtown condos, a large selection of fabulous restaurants, or a new art museum and new hotels in the offing.

A significant work of public art for every major new building project from this point forward would be an investment in tradition and the future. Now that would be something to write about.

GR Magazine contributing editor Joseph Becherer, Ph.D., writes the monthly “Art Appreciation” column and is a professor at Aquinas College and curator of sculpture at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. GR


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