The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

(Foreground) Lucas Samaras, Chair Transformation Number 20B, 1996, patinated bronze and brass; (background) Sol LeWitt, Four-Sided Pyramid.

More than 30 years in the making, the National Gallery Sculpture Garden opened on May 23. From the outside, it looks like a picturesque garden restrained by a Neoclassical girdle. Once inside, the striking contrast between nature, architecture, and the 17 sculptures—a riotous mix of contemporary works placed at irregular intervals—reveals itself in full force.

Although the concept for a sculpture garden originated in the ’60s, the museum (under then-director J. Carter Brown) only secured the 6.1-acre lot in 1991; when Rusty Powell succeeded Carter Brown as director a year later, he initiated the design phase. But it took the more than $10 million gift from the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation to turn the dream into a reality. As the design took shape, what Powell wanted to avoid above all was the “starter kit” look common to many new constructions.1 The Olin Partnership responded with a graded landscape, old plantings, and meandering pathways around a revamped fountain and a double ring of linden trees.

Marla Prather, who has been at the Gallery since 1986 and has headed the 20th-Century Department for the last three years, outlines the curatorial vision: “We never set out thinking that it would be predominantly a garden filled with work by American contemporary artists. I think it naturally progressed that way because living American artists are making some of the greatest sculptures around.”2 Another reason is the multi-million-dollar price tags on early Modernist works, which would have “exhausted our acquisition budget fairly quickly.” Prather is also quick to acknowledge the conservation risks and maintenance issues associated with placing such masterworks, even those from the Gallery’s own collection, in an outdoor setting.

The sculptures range from 1973 to 1999. These dates can be deceiving, however, as many of the more recent works are by artists who established themselves years earlier or who are now deceased. The Americans include Louise Bourgeois, Scott Burton, Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Isamu Noguchi, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, George Rickey, Lucas Samaras, Joel Shapiro, David Smith, and Tony Smith. The Europeans are Barry Flanagan, Joan Miró, and Magdalena Abakanowicz.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996. Cast bronze with silver nitrate patina, 9.25 x 27.3 x 26 ft.

Because of this concentration on contemporary sculpture, Prather sees a “kind of integrity” in the garden “in terms of the connection between objects and the continuity of the whole.” But what is striking is just the opposite. Put another way, the selection’s greatest virtue lies in its open embrace of stylistic diversity. Rich in texture and varied in scale, many of the works are idea-driven, appealing to the mind more than to the emotions. Regrettably, none of them are site-specific or commissioned. As a result, they cannot escape appearing as so many objects placed in a garden, no matter how well sited they are.

Off the central east entrance, Tony Smith’s intriguing 17-foot-high Moondog plays hide-and-go-seek through intervening trees. Conceived in 1964 and made posthumously in 1998–99, the aluminum work consists of 15 octahedrons and 10 tetrahedrons. Standing on three legs and painted black, the multi-faceted work presides over its site like a giant Darth Vader. This sense of awe is tempered by a zany tilt and interpenetrating geometry, which frames views of the garden and beyond. Prather recalls the reaction of Jane Smith, the artist’s widow, to the site: “In one direction, I see the dome of the United States Capitol and in the other direction, I see the Washington Monument, and then I see my husband’s sculpture; you can’t not be conscious of where you are.”

Claes Oldenburg delivers once again as the master magician who makes the small large, the soft hard, the inanimate animate, and the ordinary extraordinary. The nearly 20-foot-high Typewriter Eraser, Scale X commands its site with a bold torque, bright palette, and bristles reaching up to the sky. Prather comments: “I love the sense of chaos and order. The object is wonderfully coherent and coming apart at the same time…Those bristles feel as though a breeze has just moved through them.”3 There is also a touching irony about this piece that appears so up-to-date but whose original function is now virtually forgotten. Prather continues: “Claes Oldenburg sent me a cartoon about the sculpture where the child is saying to his Mommie, ‘What’s a typewriter eraser?’ She explains to him. And he says, ‘Mommie, what’s a typewriter?’”

Similarly, Roy Lichtenstein’s House I abounds in playful intelligence. He is another artist who, unlike many of his colleagues from the ’60s, continued to produce great work up until his death in 1997. The brightly colored, two-sided house is actually concave with the chimney extending farthest. For Prather, it offers a “cartoon in the middle of the garden,” and as his widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein explained, it gave the National Gallery a chance to circumvent a restriction on adding an architectural element in the Garden.4 A tour de force in overturning design precepts, House I ingeniously deconstructs traditional perspective and compresses 2-D and 3-D into a single composition while maintaining its Euclidean lines.

(Foreground) Alexander Calder, Cheval Rouge, 1974. painted sheet metal. (Background) Sol LeWitt, Four-Sided Pyramid, 1997, concrete blocks and mortar.

This sense of disorientation contrasts with Scott Burton’s Six-Part Seating diametrically across the garden. The subtle composition celebrates the harmonious relationship between man and nature through a functional yet cosmic Minimalism. Six polished red granite chairs, each bearing the same solid hard-edge geometry, center around an open void. Under the shade of trees, visitors can enjoy this intimate resting spot and are invited to contemplate the potential of Minimalism itself as well as more everyday issues.

A differing approach to geometric abstraction informs Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele II. A uniform slab of one-inch weathering steel, the sculpture approximates a 10.5-foot square with rounded corners. Close inspection reveals an old patina made up of myriad sparkling flashes. “Most of my sculpture has been planar; I want the frontality of it, and I think that the shape, how it relates to everything around it, is what I’m interested in,” Kelly explains.5 In this case, he wanted the work set against the sky and the buildings across the street. Stele II’s distilled geometry masks its inspiration in nature. In particular, it recalls the negative shape he found in a grouping of trees in his backyard. The artist continues, “The shape itself is a kind of memory of other things and therefore a metaphor for something else. When people look at it, I want them to think that it does belong in some way, but they don’t know where or how—it’s mysterious.”

Louise Bourgeois’s silvery bronze Spider provides a much needed relief from the preponderance of geometry. A stunning example of a craggy arabesque, its deceptively spindly legs support a 24-foot span, with one leg sensually curving upward. Surreal in its proportions and in its transformation of everyday perceptions, the creature changes with each vantage point. At times, it lurks inside a ring of low shrubs, awaiting the unwitting visitor; at other times, it is clearly visible and looks like a rocket from planet Arachne. Playful and disturbing like much of her work, the spider has long symbolized for Bourgeois the complex nature of womanhood, deadly in its mission to protect and nurture.

The most haunting work by far in the garden is Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Puellae (Girls), an outdoor variant on her well-known indoor groupings of adult figures. Here the viewer encounters 30 anonymous figures only three feet high standing in the shade and under the cover of linden trees. For the installation, the artist spent a day and a half adjusting the exact placement of the figures in relation to the site and to each other. In discussing her subject, the artist explains: “I was fascinated by the body of a child with its soft bone structure, soft junctions and deriving out of it, movements impossible to be performed.”6 Stiff and headless, they only begin to hint at the tragic memory that inspired them. Abakanowicz recalls being told that in the winter of 1942, hundreds of Polish children froze to death in unheated cattle trucks en route to Germany.

View of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999, during installation.

Each of Abakanowicz’s figures is a unique cast from a burlap original. “[My] sculptures are records of my movements, thoughts, and feelings. None of this is repeatable. I waited about 30 years for Puellae to ripen in my mind and intuition and to become a reality.” Prather comments, “If you look at the feet, the arms, if you look at the way these delicate pre-adolescent torsos are formed, it’s a very beautiful and moving work…[that] strikes a different emotional note. It’s good to have a counterpoint to the other works.”

Some of the works fare less well. Examples by a few artists, including Joel Shapiro and David Smith, appear lost. Sol LeWitt’s disappointing Four-Sided Pyramid and Barry Flanagan’s Thinker on a Rock are helped by their dialogue with the history of art, the former with ancient Near-Eastern buildings and the latter with Rodin’s Thinker. Although Lewitt’s faceted structure benefits by engaging with the architecture outside the garden, the impenetrability of its white surface lacks the airy elegance of his linear three-dimensional work. (This lack is made up by Lucas Samaras’s adjacent blue-patinated bronze Chair Transformation Number 20B, whose diagonal stacking of a signature motif appears to defy gravity.) Flanagan’s cast-bronze sculpture, on the other hand, begins and ends as a one-liner, but no doubt amuses the public with its Disneyesque, oversized animal subject.

The integration of the garden with the East and West Wings of the Gallery, the Mall, and the urban setting meets with varying success. Despite attempts to construct the marble portions of the garden with the same stone (from the same quarry) as that used for the East and West Wings, only enough was available for the benches and fountain. The change in materials is most strongly felt in the stone wall posts, a lack compounded by their molding profiles, which are less complex and deeply carved than those of the garden’s Neoclassical neighbors. As a result, the wall sections read as stage sets and appear weak next to the boldly articulated iron fencing. By contrast, the gentle swellings in the land gracefully echo the curvilinear rhythm established by the benches around the fountain. Another area of sustained delight is the changing frames afforded by the sculptures as they engage in dialogue with the sites beyond the fence.

The undisputed triumph, however, is the fountain, which as part of the deal with Congress, will continue to serve as an ice skating rink in the winter. Besides providing a central focus, the fountain is a mesmerizing kinetic artwork in its own right. For Prather, the presence of water and sound makes for “a more dynamic and refreshing space.” She adds, “It’s a very beautiful form. As the jets of water meet, they form a wonderful tree shape in the middle as they go down.” A proposed augmentation, currently under investigation, is a possible commission for James Turrell to create an immaterial sculpture by coloring the water with fiber optic lighting.

(Foreground) Tony Smith, Moondog, 1964/1998–99. Painted aluminum. (Background) Alexander Calder, Cheval Rouge, 1974, metal.

A discussion of the garden would be incomplete without comparing it to the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden directly across the Mall, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. As the two collections now stand, they enjoy a basically friendly and complementary relationship. The Hirshhorn’s collection is rich in early Modernist works, and with Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and Matisse’s Backs, it “has the figurative tradition very powerfully represented,” Prather explains. While the circular pool at the National Gallery’s echoes the shape of the Hirshhorn’s building, the settings differ markedly, with the former reading as an enclosed street-level campus and the latter as primarily a sunken plaza. More noticeable still are the National Gallery’s changing palette and textural variation in contrast to the Hirshhorn’s strong showing of cast bronzes.

Looking back, Prather is quick to point out that she has immensely enjoyed working with living artists and describes the entire process as a magical one whose rewards have been protracted and ongoing. Especially memorable was a meeting in the spring of 1998: “We had been looking at the plan. All of a sudden we had maquettes on the plan, and we could see the relative scale and the relationship to the trees and the relationship of the sculptures to one another. That’s when it became a kind of reality…Once it became three dimensional, we all sat there and marveled.” The excitement grew with the installation of each new work. Prather continues, “The constantly shifting landscape is by far the most exhilarating experience in contrast to the white gallery where everything is stable.”

The final garden continues this theme of progressive change. While the garden will “always have an organic quality,” before adding new work or organizing special exhibitions, she cautions: “We need to learn about the space, to see how the works relate to nature that will grow up around.” A couple of possibilities are mounting exhibitions that juxtapose indoor and outdoor works by the same artist or that compare drawings inside the galleries with sculpture in the garden.

In a city filled with equestrian statues and monuments, the National Gallery Sculpture Garden is a welcome addition. Visitors are embracing it, and for them, it offers “another way to think about what public sculpture is and can be. And that’s what a lot of these artists, particularly Oldenburg, have really addressed,” Prather concludes. Its Mall location, moreover, guarantees a certain immortality, as Ellsworth Kelly points out: “It’s a glorious feeling to have my work there in Washington.”

(Foreground) Scott Burton, Six-Part Seating, 1985/1998. Granite. (Background) Mark di Suvero, Aurora, 1992–93, steel.

Still one cannot help questioning the selection, especially in light of the Gallery’s stellar indoor holdings. Was it based on budgetary restraints? And if so, will the Gallery be forever dependent on gifts for future acquisitions? Where are works by Anthony Caro, Richard Long, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ulrich Rückreim, and Richard Serra to name just five possibilities? Provided that the National Gallery of Art is committed to building and presenting a comprehensive collection of contemporary sculpture, however, its new sculpture garden offers the prospect of a bright and promising future.

Sarah Tanguy is a regular contributor to Sculpture. Her review of “Lichtenstein: Sculpture and Drawings” is in this issue.

Powell quoted from the May 17, 1999, press conference at the National Gallery.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from an April 27, 1999, interview with Maria Prather at the National Gallery.
3. Prather quoted from the May 17, 1999, video produced by the National Gallery.
4. Prather quoted from the May 17, 1999, press conference at the National Gallery.
5. All quotations are from a telephone interview with Ellsworth Kelly on May 24, 1999.
6. All quotations are taken from written responses submitted on June 10, 1999, to my questions.