Sculptures add color to New York Avenue, but are they art?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

One dull block of New York Avenue downtown now looks less institutional and dour than it used to. At one end, a plump woman dances on the back of a dolphin. At the other, a chubby basketball player out-jumps an equally portly opponent. In between, the three graces, also big-boned, do a stately dance. A nearby tree (also plump) sprouts serpent branches.

These four sculptures, topping out at about twice the height of a passing art critic, were to be officially unveiled Wednesday on the median of New York Avenue between 12th and 13th streets NW, in front of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

They are among the last works conceived by the important 20th-century artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who died in 2002 at 71. They have been installed as the first phase of the museum's New York Avenue Sculpture Project, and should be up for about a year before heading home to the artist's foundation, to be replaced by some other female artist's work. (The works will be taken down for the winter to protect them.)

Covered in fragments of ceramic tile, in bright colors and gold and silver, the four sculptures are vivid and lively. They should bring a grin to the faces of passersby and lift the hearts of drivers. They are very good fun.

Is that enough?

These works aren't being billed as sweet decor, as cute pick-me-ups or as crowd-pleasing tchotchkes. The museum is calling them "world-class art." But if that's the case, we have to wonder why the art we settle for outside on our streets should be so much less weighty than what we hope to find inside our museums. Titian, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Cassatt, C├ęzanne, Picasso -- they're hardly purveyors of good clean fun that gets us smiling. Not all the art we've valued most has been grim; some has even been cheerful. But one way or another, all of it has been substantial.

For all their size and weight, you'd be unlikely to use a word like "substantial" to describe de Saint Phalle's median fillers. Your eyes take them in, then dart away to something else. Your mind does the same. They are probably best enjoyed at a nice downtown clip of 15 or 20 mph.

The new pieces are a big step up from the cheap-and-cheerful pandas and Party Animals that Washingtonians were saddled with a few years back -- but still only one step up from those. Wouldn't you imagine that when a serious museum trumpets newly installed works by a famous artist, those works ought to come off as obviously, incomparably better than -- and absolutely different from -- some animal-shaped fiberglass gussied up with paint? Wouldn't you imagine that when a women's museum makes its most public statement yet, it would avoid any hint of decor or fluff?

'Plop' art

At her best, Niki de Saint Phalle made works that were so jubilantly, unrestrainedly goofy, they came off as scary and aggressive. Their good cheer was so unladylike and coarse that it had an automatic feminist edge.

The artist's most important piece was "She -- A Cathedral," a 1966 sculpture of a reclining nude woman, house-size and with the same cartoonish look as Washington's new pieces. That nude lay on her back with her legs spread, and visitors went into a room inside by passing though her vagina. It was all about making us confront our squeamish attitude toward sex and birth and women's bodies. It was meant to make us laugh, but nervously.

A wan smile is the most that anyone is likely to give to de Saint Phalle's Washington works, which come from the tired tail end of her significant career. Any content that these pieces carry is so slight and cliched, it's hardly worth noting. A text panel says the figures in her "Three Graces," tiled in white and yellow and black, are meant to represent unity among races. Kumbaya.

The same panel informs us that "Nana on a Dolphin" is about women's special connection to nature. Tell that to the landfills overflowing with perfume boxes and discarded stilettos. This colorful dolphin rider is a nice antidote to the dead white men on horses that we mostly get in Washington, but that's about the best that can be said for her.

I'm not sure what the basketball player is supposed to help us understand. He wears number 23, so I guess we're supposed to remember that Michael Jordan scored points. It's one of the artist's "Black Heroes" sculptures, but its celebration of blackness feels thin and generic.

"Serpent Tree" is the best of the four pieces: Its 12 snake-headed branches are surreal enough to counterbalance its coloring-book looks. There's at least a bit of tension there.

De Saint Phalle's new pieces are the epitome of what has come to be dismissed as "plop" art: big bits of undemanding, adequately pleasing stuff plonked down here and there across the urban landscape, without any special reason for being where they are. Washingtonians have somehow got used to this, almost as though it's all that we deserve or are smart enough to handle. But there are much better options out there.

How D.C. compares

The best new public art, such as the District rarely sees, tries to rethink what outdoor sculpture might be. It worries away at both the "public" and "art" parts of the equation.

In New York alone, in just the past few years, the public has gotten to see the stainless-steel trees of the American artist Roxy Payne set down amid the real trees of Madison Square Park. (Since the fall, Washingtonians have also seen a steel tree by Payne, in the National Gallery's sculpture garden -- which is more a museum without a roof than a fully public, urban space.) Up on the sidewalk by Central Park, a body called the Public Art Fund installed sculptures by the German conceptualist Christian Jankowski. Jankowski provided immaculately lifelike bronze sculptures made to look exactly like the street performers who use metallic costumes and makeup to look . . . exactly like lifelike bronze sculptures. A few years before that, the fund got the art in Central Park to go fully immaterial, as Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff gave visitors the chance to put on headphones and take one of her disconcerting tours of the park. (The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum did a Cardiff walk along the Mall in 2005.)

Any of these public art projects -- as well as others I've seen in Vancouver and Toronto, Paris and London -- have a level of ambition that we almost never see in Washington. All of them were chosen to engage and even delight a non-expert audience; none of them gave up on scoring points as innovative art. There's no reason we in Washington can't set the bar that high.

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