Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder

La Grande Voile (The Big Sail), 1965

Painted Steel


480 in. (1219.2 cm)

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene McDermott

Calder is best known for his development of sculptures in motion, known as “mobiles.” A second major mode in his work was the “stabile,” a stable sculpture that rests on the ground. The sculptor Jean Arp, whose biomorphic vocabulary influenced Calder, coined the term stabile in order to contrast them to Calder’s mobiles. Calder’s first large stabiles date from the mid-1930s but it was not until the late 1950s and 1960s that they began to attain the colossal scale of MIT’s La Grande Voile (The Big Sail).

In such works, Calder wanted to achieve a massiveness of form and scale without sacrificing the lightness and sense of motion of his mobiles. The stabiles establish as few points of contact with the ground as possible. The subtle interplays between straight and sinuous edges and between flat and curved planes and the appendages jutting out from the framework communicate an epic quality and a soaring dynamism. The large stabiles provide changing experiences of space as the spectator moves around and through them. Sudden angles and planes slice, divide, and mold the space into varied shapes.

Calder wrote: “When I use two or more sheets of metal cut into shapes and mounted at angles to each other, I feel that there is a solid form, perhaps concave, perhaps convex, filling the dihedral angles between them. I do not have a definite idea of what this would be like, I merely sense it and occupy myself with the shapes one actually sees.” Calder’s forms are imaginatively derived from nature, and their presence is strongly organic. Such stabiles as La Grande Voile suggest primeval beings, giant insects or birds raised up on their legs and spreading their wings in an impressive array of spars, blades, bolts, and rivets. The spirit of play is powerful in everything that Calder made, as is his sense of joyful and ebullient invention.

Calder’s working method involved making a small model that was then mathematically enlarged and fabricated in large scale under his supervision at an ironworks. Calder worked closely with the fabricators both in Tours, France, where La Grande Voile was made, and in Waterbury Connecticut, at the Segre Ironworks. The MIT sculpture weighs thirty-three tons and was installed in 1966. The intermediate model of La Grande Voile, given by Mr. and Mrs. Julius Stratton, also belongs to the MIT Permanent Collection, and is installed in the Weisner Building lobby.

Building Number: McDermott Court

Accession Number: 1966.001

Audio Transcript

Alexander Calder was commissioned to make La Grande Voile, or The Big Sail, for MIT in 1962. Professor of art history, Caroline Jones.

It was intended that you could see this sculpture from the Charles River with its 40 feet soaring into the air, and that it would tie together the MIT campus with its skyscrapers and its radar labs and all of its post-war engineering going full blast to the human parts of the city and to its beautiful environment.

Calder trained as a mechanical engineer, but when moved to France in the 1920s, he began making mobiles, playful sculptures often enhanced with motors to create movement. By the time of this work, his sculptures were often seen as engineering feats. Monumental in size and scale, they still retained the lightness and dynamism of his mobiles. They were dubbed stabiles.

This is a carefully designed piece, so much so that he built a model. They put it inside the wind tunnel at MIT to calculate whether there were any problems with these sails really becoming sails and destabilizing the entire sculpture.

With its 33 tons of bolted together metal, the sculpture's five intersecting flat and curved planes afford visitors the ability to walk underneath the work and contemplate how Calder shaped the space in and around the sculpture. Buried underneath the sculpture is a relic of its era, a time capsule.

In that time capsule, several MIT professors buried things they thought would reveal to a distant future what MIT was about. It included the annual report of the Eastern Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, what we know today as Exxon. It included a Betty Crocker Cookbook. It included the student newspaper, The Tech. Perhaps someday, they'll be able to do a little tunnel from the side and excavate that time capsule without disturbing Calder's sail.