Adjacent to the gallery’s West Wing, the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art is an evocative, inspiring, and outdoor feature of the gallery’s permanent collection. An eye-grabbing relationship exists between the sculptures and their immediate natural environment, in addition to a relationship between the individual pieces, evoking a loud, intriguing dialogue within the collection that the viewer can’t help but overhear. Completed May 23rd, 1999, this refreshing escape from the representational, naturalistic intensity of the gallery’s West Wing has six public entrances. Responsible for the garden’s natural arrangement, landscape architect Laurie Olin completed the project using about 6 acres, which includes a café featuring outdoor seating.
Springing and sprouting from the ground, numerous forms by various contemporary artists encircle an ice-skating rink, which becomes a fountain when the weather permits, typically between April and November. With the exception of only a few sculptures, this exhibit is quite impressive, presenting an array of artists, styles, and media. The contrast of organic and inorganic keeps the viewer moving along the circular path of sculptures, a lot like a game of Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders. As the sculptures mesmerized me, I followed, compelled to travel around the rink, and astounded by how these forms co-exist with as well as mimic nature.
The displayed artworks create a harmony with the surrounding space. Roxy Paine’s tree sculpture, Graft, is an ideal piece, blending in with nature but also standing out. Placing such sculptures in the garden enhances not only the impact of the art, but of nature as well. Our perception of nature is altered by its integration with manmade objects. Organic and inorganic materials unite in the garden to create another dimension, where viewers’ imaginations are easily stimulated by ambiguous yet vivacious implications of the selected pieces.
Overall, the sculptures are well spaced; There are just enough pieces surrounding the rink. Because they are outside, the lighting varies depending on how clear or overcast the sky is, and what time of the day or year they are being viewed. This makes the exhibit more dynamic, allowing for diverse interpretations of sculptures’ highlights, shadows, value contrasts, and even hues. Dynamism and flexibility are crucial to the atmospheric, wild theme of the garden, mimicking nature as a boundless, ever-changing force.
In a lot of ways, the exhibition feels like the solar system, with planets, instead of sculptures, orbiting around something central. The rink/fountain in this case is comparable to the sun. The organization might be the only aspect of the exhibit that seems a bit like a shot in the dark. The placement of sculptures works quite well somehow, but I see no aesthetic reason why Amor, for example, is placed at one of the entrances. I’ll give Robert Indiana this, however: If you shuffle the word “Amor”, it reads as “Roam,” which might encourage a viewer to feel welcome to wander the garden. Other unsuccessful pieces used typography and visual clichés too. The Roy Lichtenstein house piece was a complete disappointment. The exhibit would have benefited had he presented something more portrait-like, or more three-dimensional. Perhaps a sculpture of a Star Wars spacecraft (to fit in with the ‘outer-space’ sentiment suggested by the sculptures’ orbit), or a character he has illustrated previously would be appropriate. Although his style is contemporary, graphic, and quite two-dimensional, it would have been interesting if his contribution were more 3-dimensional, alive and integrated with the theme of the entire garden.
4-Sided Pyramid by Sol LeWitt:
After doing a little research, I learned that the artist designed the pyramid, before having a team of assistants construct it. He didn’t like to refer to his sculptural pieces as sculptures; rather, he liked to call them structures. I suppose he thought of himself as more of a designer than a sculptor. Much of LeWitt’s other work involves rhythmical repetition of geometric forms. When initially viewing this piece as a sculpture, I felt a bit frustrated with his lack of imagination. Nevertheless, LeWitt acheived a pretty subtle but potent innovation on this basic, ancient design. After all, it is a pyramid, and very much resembles one, but in a small scale. The scale certainly contributes a sense of intrigue, as well as the calculated, repetitive arrangement of blocks, creating a perceived high value contrast, exaggerated by the relationships between positive and negative space. When considering the work as a structure, or something architectural, it is significantly more inspiring. It makes the viewer question the artist’s motive. Why an ancient Egyptian idea for this exhibit? Does it symbolize the power and intellect of man? Or permanence? It is certainly interesting to see a pyramid here in North America, in green grass rather than sand. At second thought, the overall pattern almost resembles that of a pyramidal keyboard, which could symbolize communication and interconnectedness through technology.
Although many of the sculptures are abstract and non-representational, my favorite, by far, mimics the form of a colossal, bare tree. Roxy Paine, who was born in 1966 in New York City, created a spectacular piece between 2008 and 2009, using stainless steel and concrete. Graft reflects sunlight and color magnificently, striking the viewer with awe. It is so naturalistic that it is deceptive at first glance. The type of tree depicted and its size might occur naturally where it has been placed, but certainly not in steel or concrete form.
Aurora 1992-1993, by Mark Di Suvero (Italian) and Untitled 1989, by Joel Shapiro (American) is an eye-grabbing and angular duet of sculptures, if you are standing in the right place. Untitled 1989 appears to be an abstracted human figure taking a bow, and Aurora stands tall several feet behind it. Aurora may be encountered at the beginning of the path if you start at the Amor sculpture, and Untitled 1989 might be seen toward the end of the tour.
Joel Shapiro made Untitled 1989 by combining bronze cubic forms with similar ratios/proportions to the human body. A curtsy or a bow would be appropriate for the end of a performance, or an exhibit-which makes this piece and its placement quite clever, especially since it is near one of the garden’s gates. If you view it closer to your time and place of entrance, it appears more like a “welcome,” however, which works just as well. The sculpture is therefore dynamic in its function and form. Formal dynamism is exhibited by a variation of line direction, and also suggested by the implied movement of the subject matter.
Aurora is a fascinating piece, because inside two triangular shapes, a sideways “A” suggests movement along the path and around the garden. This directive suggestion is elegant yet authoritative, due to its stature. The piece’s height makes the viewer look upward, alluding to how the natural phenomenon of an aurora borealis also makes people look to the sky. The composition of the sculpture also includes circular forms that travel inside and out of the triangles, which provides aesthetic balance between angular and curvilinear lines. The “A” gives way to a literal representation of the word ‘Aurora,’ of course, while the rings suggest an actual aurora, not just the word. The sculpture is made of eight tons of steel and looks incredibly industrial. Inspired by a poem about New York City, the artist has also rendered a scene of urban explosion, which references another type of natural phenomenon altogether.
When viewed behind Shapiro’s sculpture, Di Suvero’s piece is almost arrogantly saying, “Hi! Remember me? Don’t I look awesome from this angle? Oh yeah, there is my older, American cousin, down there, Untitled 1989. He’s cool too. He is edgier than me. He’s also my partner in crime, but we are in competition too. He’s bowing, he thinks it’s all about him, but he does not realize that you are probably looking at me.” The curtsey actually seems reverent, small, and humble, like the actual size of Untitled 1989, while Aurora is expansive, explosive, and proud.
As Aurora continued to speak to me, an observation arose from the juxtaposition of the two sculptures. Nature appears to dominate man. I relate it to the Slave Ship painting by the 19th century British painter and abolitionist, William Turner, who depicted nature as superior to man. This observation drawn from the sculptures also speaks to me as a commentary on the future of the Earth. With resources progressively dwindling and conditions becoming more treacherous, the human species could be eliminated but the Earth and a select few dominant species will perpetuate and evolve. It is also interesting to consider this relationship, between man and nature, in the context of the anthropocene.
This exhibition is definitely worth a look, or several. I would give it four out of five stars. I walked through it a few times in two weeks. The first time, the rink was totally dry, with barely anyone in the garden. However, the second time was the weekend of the cherry blossom festival and the garden was packed. Additionally, the fountain was flowing and in full force, and flowers had bloomed, which animated the sculptures even more. This relationship between the sculptures and their immediate natural environment, and the relationships amongst the pieces will speak to anyone who ponders the sculpture garden’s assets. If you really stop, observe, think, and listen to the language of the exhibit’s atmosphere, the forms will sing to you.
 “Star Wars Gets the Roy Lichtenstein Treatment.” A Wallpaper Life. http://zacherybrasier.com/2014/02/05/star-wars-gets-the-roy-lichtenstein-treatment/.
By Sireen Jawdat