Since 1965, Alexander Calder’s forty-foot-tall dark, handsome stabile* called La Grande Voile (The Big Sail) has stood on MIT’s campus within view of the Charles River, livened by small white sleek sails in certain seasons. Why now after nearly fifty years in Cambridge does this mighty metal sculpture call for new attention from someone like me who has lived here almost all that time?
*stabile: Calder’s term for stable but dynamic monumental sculpture
Two views of the same sculpture, La Grande Voile
The immediate cause for me was the significant and splendid current exhibit of Calder’s art at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem this fall. My visit there in October jogged a memory that I might have seen something big by the same artist in my own home city. A very useful map of MIT Public Art and Architecture helped me find the work; a very fine fall afternoon helped me admire and photograph The Big Sail.
The exhibit at PEM will close January 4. If you are short on time during December, you should focus on fitting in the full exhibit, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, indoors at the museum. Then head outdoors in some milder month to gaze up at this elegant example of the artist’s monumental work. Notice how it interacts with sky, sunlight, trees, surrounding buildings and passing people as well as those like you who pause to appreciate its amazingly graceful presence with awareness gained from time spent at PEM.
In addition, go inside the nearby List Visual Arts Center to contemplate Calder’s intermediate model for the Big Sail, hardly more than eight feet tall. There you have the opportunity to see a step in the process of scaling a stabile to its full size (five times as large) and to get close to some elements that have to be high above you when you view them in their final form outdoors. At the List you can also get a paper version of the map and basic printed information that will lead you to more detailed background from the audio tour for these two and 85 other sites on campus.
Views of intermediate model for the Big Sail
For perspective on viewing Alexander Calder’s art, I recommend the enlightening review of the exhibit at PEM by Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe. At the PEM website, you can also learn more about Calder from posts on Connected.