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Nixon's true enemy: the 'Adam' sculpture

By John Kelly
Sunday, March 14, 2010; C03

This will teach Answer Man to stand up for Richard Nixon.

Last week in this space, Answer Man shot down the rumor that Nixon, in 1969, ordered the removal of "Broken Obelisk," Barnett Newman's abstract sculpture, from outside of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Maybe so, wrote one reader, a former Nixon administration official, but did you know about the other sculpture, the one Nixon did get rid of?

And so back to the archives Answer Man went.

It turns out that in 1971, a sculpture called "Adam," by Alexander Liberman, was on display on the same spot as had been "Broken Obelisk": at 17th and New York NW. It was also colossal, an assemblage of beams and severed pipes painted bright red.

" 'Adam' drove Nixon slightly crazy whenever he stepped out onto the White House grounds for a moment of tranquillity and caught a glimpse of it," wrote Leonard Garment, a special counsel to Nixon, in his memoir, "Crazy Rhythm."

We will leave aside the question of how long a drive it was for Nixon to arrive at "slightly crazy." Suffice to say that the president made it clear that he wanted "Adam" banished from the garden -- or at least from his view.

The White House had no authority over the Corcoran, a private museum, so Garment had to tread carefully. This would require finesse. The key was to make it appear not as if the Corcoran was losing a work of art, but that another location was gaining a work of art. The specifics of the switcheroo were left to Nancy Hanks, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and her deputy, Michael Straight.

They thought the solution might rest in a national park. George Hartzog, former director of the National Park Service, was consulted. Hartzog called the superintendent of the capital's parks, who organized a Jeep tour of possible new locations.

"We ended up on Hains Point, a promontory of East Potomac Park," Straight wrote in his 1979 book, "Twigs for an Eagle's Nest."

"There we stood on a greensward bordered by lofty trees and by the blue waters of the Potomac. 'Adam,' we agreed, could not ask for a finer home."

The director and the trustees of the Corcoran, the director of the National Park Service, the secretary of the interior and Liberman were all taken aback by the sudden urge to move "Adam." "But they rallied, and supported us," Straight wrote. The sculpture was moved.

"The nature of politics is you do A, B and C to be able to accomplish D, E and F," Garment told Answer Man in a telephone interview. "It's all trade-offs and compromises. It's not the happiest process, but you try to get things done. What we were primarily trying to do is get the two endowments [the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities] onto a sounder financial basis. We didn't want to have any fights over the arts. And what we did was successful. Nixon approved a very dramatically increased budget for the two endowments. That's life: trade-offs."

The story doesn't end there: Not long after Liberman's sculpture was moved, Nixon was on the presidential yacht Sequoia with Garment and others as it cruised down the Potomac. As they rounded a curve in the river, "Adam" came into view. Garment cursed his luck, but all Nixon said was, "This is where it should have been in the first place."

In 1974, "Adam" was purchased by the Storm King Art Center, the 500-acre sculpture habitat in New York's Hudson Valley. It returned briefly to Washington when the National Gallery of Art's East Building was dedicated in 1978. It's back at Storm King once again.

Broken promise

Nixon might or might not have liked Newman's "Broken Obelisk" (Answer Man is guessing he didn't), but plenty of people did, such as Cornelia Strawser, who back then worked in the FDIC building and had a view that encompassed both the statue and the Washington Monument itself, giving Cornelia "singular artistic and political pleasure every single day."

Tom Green of Cabin John wanted it noted that the exhibit Newman's sculpture was part of, "Scale as Content," wouldn't have been possible without the curator who put it together, Eleanor Green (no relation to Tom).

Finally, Susan Yount wrote that she was excited to see the photo of "Broken Obelisk." A transplant to the District from Seattle, Susan thought it was the sculpture she grew up with on the University of Washington campus. Yep, there's a "Broken Obelisk" there and another at MoMA in New York City.

Write answerman@washpost.com.

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