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ArtPrize entry removed after fallout from Calder Foundation

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A Michigan artist on Wednesday removed a controversial artwork connected to an Alexander Calder public sculpture following pressure from local residents and the broader art world.

Screen printer David Dodde worked with a curator to recast Calder's large steel sculpture, “La Grande Vitesse,” with a garden theme as part of ArtPrize, the annual art exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., that runs through Sunday.

Titled "Fleurs et Riviere," a homage to Calder's time in France, the piece affixed magnetic flowers, many hand-cut, to the 40-foot-high arches of the sculpture, in an attempt to add "whimsy."

The city approved the installation, but last week said it would be decommissioned following criticism from locals and the New York-based Alexander Calder Foundation, which also received complaints.

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Foundation president and Calder's grandson Alexander S.C. Rower last week sent a letter to city officials calling Dodde's work an "abomination."

"The Calder Foundation wasn't pleased, and the relationship with the foundation is important to us, so it's a lesson learned," said Grand Rapids city manager Greg Sundstrom.

The entry was going to be removed last Friday, but the city decided to keep the piece up so Dodde's son, who is disabled, could see his father's work as part of a school field trip.

"Whatever damage was done wasn't going to get any worse with another couple of days," Sundstrom said. 

The Calder was among the National Endowment for the Arts’ first projects in its Art in Public Places program. "La Grande Vitesse" (which in French means "the great swiftness," a nod to Grand Rapids) has served as a symbol of the city since its arrival in 1969, adorning everything from street signs to trash trucks.

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"We were the first city in the country to have a public space like this," said Sundstrom. "People in this town love the Calder. It's in the center of our town square. It's where all of our public events happen."

The sculpture in the past has been outfitted for city promotions, including a pink ribbon to signify breast cancer awareness. 

"I'm guessing we've done it 100 times over the last 45 years," Sundstrom said, adding that until now "no one objected."

Last year, a Missouri artist draped a hand-knitted web over the sculpture as part of ArtPrize, which pairs independent curators with artists to create pieces. 

"That happened without issue," said Kevin Buist, ArtPrize's director of exhibitions, adding that "the nature of those two installations is quite different." 

While Dodde's piece was designed to preserve the Calder, it "creates the illusion that [the sculpture] painted, so visually it has a very different effect," Buist said.

The installation is still eligible to win ArtPrize honors, including the jury award that comes with a $100,000 prize. Winners will be announced Friday.

"I actually think it's pretty whimsical and great. It reminds me of an aloha print," said Christian Gaines, executive director of ArtPrize, adding that "art is a personal experience, and I personally like it."

Like it or not, Sundstrom said the installation has served its purpose.

"ArtPrize is supposed to create conversation, and this piece has done that," he said. "Artists are supposed to push the limits and this piece has. 

"But people smarter than me think it should come down, and that's what we're going to do."

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jamie.wetherbe@latimes.com

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