National Gallery's Sculpture Garden Is Carving out Quick Success

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Come summer, people here flock to the outdoors -- sidewalk cafes are bustling; streets are crowded with parents pushing strollers and tourists wielding cameras.

Now Washington has an exciting new open-air attraction. After decades of planning and two years of construction, the National Gallery of Art's long-awaited Sculpture Garden opened to the public on May 23.

It's a lively addition to the National Mall -- six lushly landscaped acres filled with masterworks by such famous names as Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg and David Smith.

Prominently situated across from the National Gallery's West Building, it attracts everyone from families with young children to people on walkers.

In its first two weeks, the garden drew "over 200,000 people," says museum director Earl A. Powell III. "And that's just the ones the guards have been able to count."

In addition to being free, the garden is extremely welcoming. There's plenty of seating on comfortable stone benches overlooking the huge reflective pool with its dancing fountain. All of the sculptures can be reached by a meandering walkway that surrounds the pool.

The objects themselves are spectacular. Almost everything is of monumental scale, but there's lots of breathing room around each piece thanks to sensitive treatment by landscape architect Laurie D. Olin of Philadelphia.

Each object stakes out its own territory, so to speak, fitting comfortably into its setting at the same time. An Ellsworth Kelly abstraction rests on a plot of grass overlooking the West Building; an angular geometric form by Joel Shapiro is nestled in ground cover; Lucas Samaras' elongated Chair . . . rises like a ladder from a flower bed.

Works dating from the mid-1960s to the present provide something for every taste -- minimal geometric abstractions, whimsical variations on commonplace objects, a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, functional granite chairs by Scott Burton.

Highlights include:

Claes Oldenburg's immense Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, a lively, 20-foot expansion of his old familiar theme, done here in collaboration with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen.

Louise Bourgeois' anthropomorphic Spider, a looming, 10-by-24-foot bronze that perches on spindly legs, dramatically framing the National Archives Building across the Mall while providing a protective shelter with its body.

Barry Flanagan's outrageous Thinker on a Rock, in which his signature image of a hare brazenly assumes the pose of Rodin's The Thinker.

Sol LeWitt's breathtaking Four-Sided Pyramid, a towering concrete-block structure in the ziggurat form of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian temples, built with the help of a team of engineers and stone masons.

Roy Lichtenstein's sprightly version of a tract house complete with doors and windows that don't open, but look so much as if they could that children can't help trying. …

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