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Meet the man behind a mysterious sculpture

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I remember some time around 1977 or 1978, on either 19th or 20th Street downtown, there was an enclosed structure on the sidewalk. It was made out of thick brown metal and was six or seven feet tall. There was a smallish slit that you could look in. Inside, it was made to look like someone’s living space. I believe everything inside was painted blue. It was there for a while, and then it wasn’t. Over the years, I’ve mentioned it to people, but no one seems to have heard of it. I’m hoping you might know.

— Debbie Isaacs, North Potomac

Answer Man didn’t, but some of his readers did. After last week’s plea, several were certain the work in question was by Ed McGowin, who Post art critic Paul Richard once called “one of Washington’s most important artists.”

It wasn’t art that brought him to Washington. It was politics. In 1964, the Mississippi native took a job on the Hill with then-Rep. William Colmer (D-Miss.).

“I didn’t know how to spell ‘politics,’ ” Ed told Answer Man by phone recently. “It was a patronage job. The official title was that of a doorman. Mostly it was for guys in law school or political science graduate programs who wanted to go into politics. I didn’t have to do anything but hang out and get paid 12 months a year.”

And make art. Ed had trained as an artist in Mississippi. In Washington, he started working on experimental abstract paintings. “In the simplest description, I would take a canvas, put holes in, put a piece of plastic where the hole went and then paint over the hole,” he said.

After two years, he left his Capitol Hill job and began teaching at the Corcoran. He went from two-dimensional transparencies to three-dimensional ones, vacuum-forming thick clear plastic to create sculptural forms that he then painted.

Then he went conceptual. Starting in 1970, he legally changed his name every six weeks, shedding Ed McGowin to become Alva Isaiah Fost, then Lawrence Steven Orlean, then Irby Benjamin Roy. . . . He took 11 names in all before returning to his own, creating art under each.

Next came the work in question. It was called “Inscape” and it was erected in 1977 on the plaza at 1220 19th St. NW. Paid for by the building’s owner and the National Endowment for the Arts, it was a hollow, truncated obelisk made of steel. Plexiglas-covered slits allowed viewers to see what was inside: a series of massive gears, pulleys and levers. Cables ran between the walls. Everything was bathed in the glow of neon lights that read, “Do Not Touch.”

“The implication was if you cranked this thing up it would collapse on itself, pull itself apart,” Ed said.

The piece was groundbreaking because most sculpture was about the outside. What was inside didn’t matter. But the interior was the whole point of “Inscape.”

“I wanted it to be perceived as discovering a narrative inside, not unlike discovering the tomb of King Tut,” Ed said.

Just as grave robbers interrupted Tut’s slumber, so “Inscape” had a rude awakening. Around 1983, it was vandalized. Some contemporary press reports said someone pried open the tamper-proof screws and stole the contents. Ed has a different memory.

The Palm restaurant is on that corner.

“I was told that one night a group of Washington Redskins were having dinner there,” Ed said.

“After dinner some of them came over and turned the thing over. I’m assuming they were drunk and hell-raising. Anyway, that was the end of it.”

Whatever happened, the contents were scattered, the lights broken. Ed offered to fix it, but the developer was not interested in forking over the necessary money. “Inscape” became a symbol of the necessity of donors, including money for upkeep, when commissioning public art. After a few more years the sculpture was cleared away. Ed has no idea what became of it.

Ed, 74, now splits his time between New York City and Connecticut. In an odd instance of history repeating itself, another of his “Inscape” works is threatened. A 44-ton sculpture he did for a federal building in Jackson, Miss., was removed and put in storage when the building was landscaped. Now the General Services Administration says it doesn’t have the money to reinstall it.

“I’m hoping that maybe somehow we can rescue it,” Ed said. “It’s a nightmare.”

It’s too late for the 19th Street sculpture. It only exists in memories.

“That’s not nothing,” Ed said. “I’m deeply grateful to the people who can remember it. That’s very nice.”

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