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Washington DC is home to numerous outdoor sculpture gardens. My favorite venue is National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden which opened in 1999. According to the National Gallery Of Art, it fulfills the centuries-old intentions of Charles Pierre L’Enfant, who, in his designs for The Mall in the 1790s, included a public, landscaped garden on the north side of Washington, DC’s 8th Street axis.
Who Designed The National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden?
The National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden was designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin, who wanted to create an outdoor art museum without walls or ceiling. There are 33 different trees, ranging from the Atlas Cedar to the “Bracken’s Brown Beauty” magnolia tree.
Whereas the National Mall is a “big, open, shaft space,” according to Olin, his outdoor gallery is “a public garden of sorts, with art, sort of an outdoor gallery.” He was determined that it would be dense and filigree. He succeeded in ways that even he might not have understood.
Where Is The National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden?
The Sculpture Garden is comprised of 6.1 acres between 7th and 9th Streets Northwest. It is located on Constitution Avenue. There are typically multiple gates to enter the sculpture garden from Madison Drive and 7th Street. But during the time of COVID, there is a single entry across from the NGA’s West Building.
Two decades since it opened, it is the “shady village green” on the National Mall. Washingtonians and tourists gather year-round to study the sculpture, sit at the fountain, eat at the cafe, or just stroll the exquisite gardens. In summer, the garden hosts “Jazz in the Summer” on Friday evenings. In winter, the pool is transformed into an outdoor skating rink. Even if you don’t like to skate, it is fun to watch the figure skating.
But the main reason to visit the garden is to see the sculptures. It is not permissible to touch the sculptures except to workers. No bicycles, rollerblades or skateboards are permitted. No animals except service animals are allowed.
Visiting The National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden
1. The first sculpture seen is Lucas Samara’s Chair Transformation Number 20B. You might think you are hallucinating as it consists of chairs stacked on top of each other and rising in a tower. Depending on your vantage point, the sculpture might look like a Leaning Tower of Chairs.
2. Across the sidewalk is Moondog, sculpted by Tony Smith. The hulking object uses a lattice motif. Its name refers to Joan Miro’s Dog Barking at the Moon.
3. Next is a fork in road that can lead where visitors (especially families) turn left. Children typically run ahead to see the cartoonish yellow, white and red play house. Constructed by pop art icon Roy Lichtenstein, “House 1, 1996” is brightly painted and outlined in heavy black. It appears to rear up on its foundation.
Ever the illusionist, Lichtenstein seemingly tips the structure. The side of the house points at me while the other end appears to recede into space, a 3D sculpture. I like to fantasize that if I could walk through the door, would I find the land of Oz? Not surprisingly, this sculpture may be one of the most popular places for Instagram poses.
4. But the kids will be galloping off to see Cheval Rouge (Red Horse). The sculpture is on long-term loan from the Calder Foundation, New York.
5. Alexander Calder is one of the most famous sculptors at the NGA’s East Building. There is an entire wing devoted to his large scale mobiles and stabiles. Recalling a thoroughbred in motion, this outdoor stabile features sleek, tapering legs and a neck thrust upward. It was constructed at a foundry in Tours, France. Sitting under the belly and gazing up at the sky is mind-altering.
6. Next stop is outer space. No sculpture elicits quite the reaction of Graft, a silver tree sculpted by Roxy Paine. Monumental in scope, the shiny, stainless steel object features one set of branches that spreads wide in an orderly fashion. But the other set of branches look like the crabbed fingers of a witch.
This enormous shiny, stainless steel tree, in my mind, is bipolar art. One side is calm, showing an artsy progression of tree limbs and trunk. But the artist grafts a distorted alternate side to the tree that is crabbed, twisted, and fraught boughs. What does it mean? The purpose of the conjoining is in the eyes of the beholder. Graft was added to the collection on the 10th anniversary of the Garden’s opening.
7. Turning towards the Pavilion Café, you might think you are magically transported to Paris when you see the sculpture for a Paris Metro stop. Constructed by Hector Guimard, “An Entrance to the Paris Metropolitain, 1902) represents the iconic art nouveau style known as le style Metro. This sculpture features upward reaching tendrils and vines and can be found at 86 Parisian metro entrances today.
8. Among the more iconic are an oversized typewriter eraser, a spider, a four-sided pyramid, a “Cubi” and wandering rocks. But you must leave time for Barry Flanagan’s Thinker on a Rock.
9. In a reference to Rodin’s Thinker (1880), Flanagan sculpture a hare absorbed in thought. (But maybe he just pondering where he can get a carrot?) This hare sits upon his rock, elbow resting on one knee; he appears to contemplate all the people who dawdle and stare at him. Many rush up to mimic his thinker pose. The irreverent hare is beloved.
10. And so it is probably no coincidence that his sculpture is situated near to AMOR. It is a variation on artist Robert Indiana’s blocky text Love sculpture. This image is so famous that it appeared on the 8-cent Love stamp issued in 1973 by the U.S. Postal Service. Couples cannot fail to love taking a photograph at this site.
11. A perfect place to end a tour of the Sculpture Garden is Six-Part Seating. Created by Scott Burton, this sumptuous setting features six red granite seats. Too often Art is conceived as an object to be looked on a pedestal—Art spelled with a Capital A. The interaction with the object is formal, not friendly. Burton’s work challenges this assumption. He believed that art should “place itself not in front of, but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience.”
Depending on the length of time available, a visitor could spend hours studying the sculptures exhibited at the gardens. Certain sculptures are famous for Instagram poses, especially the AMOR sculpture for couples.
National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden Visiting Hours
Currently the National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden is only open from 11 am to 4 pm EST. Guests check in at one entry point and leave by a different gate.
Free Tours: Before COVID, the NGA offered free 50-minute tours of the sculpture gardens. These guided tours by docents will undoubtedly resume after the pandemic is over. They are one of the best values in town for a visitor to learn about the sculptors’ works.
Other DC Sculpture Gardens: Two blocks away lies the Hirshhorn’s sunken sculpture garden, part of the Smithsonian complex. It is located at 7th Street and Independence Avenue. It features modern and contemporary art.