The First Lady’s Sculpture Garden at the White House

Richard Hunt, Icarus, 1957–58. Bronze, steel, and copper, 32.5 x 17 x 11.25 in.

In early 1994, as chair of the Committee for Preservation of the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the idea of showcasing contemporary American sculpture on the White House grounds. Under the auspices of the Association of Art Museum Directors and through the generosity of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, the first exhibition, “The Midwest,” opened in October 1994 and was followed by seven more shows highlighting regional themes in current American sculpture. (In addition to “The Midwest,” the first six exhibitions included “The Southeast,” “The West,” “The Northeast,” “The Nation’s Capital,” and “Honoring Native America.”) In her forward to a recently published book, 20th-Century American Sculpture in the White House Garden (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), with photographs by David Finn, former First Lady (and now Senator) Clinton said of the series: “What you will discover is not only the richness and diversity of contemporary American sculpture, but also a brilliant reflection of America’s imagination, creativity, and progress over the last hundred years—the American century.”

Robert Mangold, Windsong III, 1989. Steel, approximately 12 x 8 ft. diameter.

The July/August 1998 issue of Sculpture included an article by Mary Lynn Kotz, “At the White House: The First Lady’s Sculpture Garden,” that profiled the first six White House Sculpture Garden exhibitions. Since that time, two further sculpture exhibitions have been held. Sculpture celebrates this significant series of exhibitions, and the recognition of American sculptors that the series represented, by updating our original article with a selection of photographs of works shown in the final two shows.

Manuel Neri, Untitled, 1991. Bronze with oil-based enamel, 65 x 18 x 15.25 in.

Exhibition 7: Inspired by Rodin,
September 1998 through October 1999

Organized by Arnold L. Lehman, Director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, this exhibition was a tribute to Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, who, in addition to having sponsored all eight of the sculpture exhibitions, owned the largest private collection of Rodin sculptures in the world. Three works by Rodin, the only non-American works in any of the eight exhibitions, were included in this show. Also included were works demonstrating the influence of the great French sculptor on American art, including sculptures by William Zorach, George Segal, Isamu Noguchi, Andrew O’Connor, Jr., Stephen De Staebler, Malvina Hoffman, Willem de Kooning, Bryan Hunt, and Louise Bourgeois.

Isaac Witkin, Chaka, 1971. Oiled steel, 52 x 68 x 56.5 in.

Exhibition 8: The View from Denver,
October 1999 through February 2001

The final show featured works from institutions in the highest and one of the most centrally located of America’s great cities, Denver. This exhibition was organized by Lewis I. Sharp, Director of the Denver Art Museum, with Diane Perry Vanderlip, Cynthia Madden Leitner, and Ginny Williams curating. The show included works by Robert Mangold, Manuel Neri, George Rickey, Richard Hunt, Deborah Butterfield, Preston Duwyenie, Isaac Witkin, Louise Bourgeois, Harry Bertoia, Ellsworth Kelly, Isamu Noguchi, and Claes Oldenburg. The works were drawn from the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Outdoor Arts, and the Ginny Williams Family Foundation.

Stephen De Staebler, Standing Figure with Blue Shoulder, 1983. Bronze, 76.5 x 17 x 17 in.

This past November 9th, Mrs. Clinton invited a group of curators, artists, and arts professionals to the White House to celebrate the entire series and the final exhibition. Most of the artists in the final exhibition were in attendance, including Robert Mangold, Isaac Witkin, and Richard Hunt. George Neubert (curator of the first show, while he was director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska—he is now director of the San Antonio Museum of Art) and Ginny Williams (one of the curators for the last show) also attended. Jeff Nathanson, President and Executive Director of the International Sculpture Center (whose report on the event appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Sculpture) and Glenn Harper, Editor of Sculpture were also present. In her remarks, Mrs. Clinton was very supportive of sculpture and sculptors. She also recognized Iris Cantor, the primary patron of the series, and introduced J. Carter Brown (an advisor for the series), who briefly spoke on the importance and success of the exhibitions.

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (EK 680), 1982. Steel, 6.25 x 14.5 x 13.75 ft.

These exhibitions paid significant tribute to the creativity, inspiration, and influence of America’s sculptors. Such an endorsement in the most exalted public space in the United States (and one of the most visited sites in the country) represents an important recognition of the role of sculpture in the cultural life of the United States. We owe a debt of gratitude to then-First Lady (and now Senator) Clinton and to her collaborators. For details on the series and more photographs of the works, please see the earlier article in Sculpture and the newly published book mentioned above.