When Louise Nevelson bats her long black eyelashes and says in a voice husky with disdain that "this is a rich country and they shouldn't impoverish people," it's not of soup kitchens and unemployment that she speaks.
At 83, and universally recognized as america's greatest living sculptor, Nevelson was talking about art and civilization and how much of it is one day going to have Made in USA stamped on it.
"The federal government today?" she said yesterday of cut-backs in the arts, "I don't want to talk about it. I think cutting back on the arts doesn't only mean cutting back on the arts, it means cutting back on civilization. You take away art and you have nothing. If you go to Egypt and don't see pyramids, or you go to Persia or Mexico, well, without them we would have no civilization. The word gets lost but not the visual."
Nevelson was feted last night at a dinner in the State Department Reception Rooms where the co-hosts were a seemingly unlikely combo of U.S. Ambassador for Cultural Affairs Daniel James Terra and the American Medical Association.
The party came in the midst of ongoing AMA lobbying efforts against government regulation of the professions. It ended a day of celebration that began when the AMA dedicated Nevelson's 30-foot-tall steel sculpture in front of its new building at Vermont and L streets NW.
Certainly the "visual" could not have been more visible than the sculpture of geometric cutouts Nevelson calls "Sky Landscape." Along with an indoor Nevelson sculpture, it was commissioned by the AMA at a cost of $640,000.
At the afternoon dedication, Mayor Marion Barry noted that "before this structure was built, we knew what was on this corner some of the time -- particularly in the evening."
Said Dr. William Y. Rial, AMA president: "In this remarkable city, which is filled with expressions of beauty ranging from the Washington Monument to the sculpture of Alfred Einstein by Jacob Epstein which is tucked in a grove of trees on the Mall, "Sky Landscape" will take its rightful place."
It was an unpretentious sidewalk ceremony that ended with a kiss artfully planted on Nevelson's cheek by Terra, the millionaire art collector who is the Reagan administration's cultural guru. Terra confessed later to having designs of his own on Nevelson, or at least on one of her sculptures, for the Chicago museum he plans to build.
"You know," he said at the dinner, which featured a four-course menu of Russian-named dishes, in honor of Nevelson's origins, "she thinks I have a lot of sex appeal."
The party was one of those Washington events when you can't tell the players without a score card. The "team," of course, was the AMA, not without certain clout as a lobby and currently doing battle in Congress over whether the Federal Trade Commission can regulate the medical profession. The players included Dr. Joseph F. Boyle, AMA board chairman, who is scheduled to testify on the Hill today in that long FTC battle.
As the issue progresses, it's not impossible that Boyle may run into several of the people he ran into at last night's party: Attorney General William French Smith, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, whose wife Carolyn, as a public relations consultant working for the AMA on the Nevelson dedication, bridged the worlds of medicine, government and art.
Others among the 200 guests lured by the AMA included CIA Director William Casey, French Ambassador Bernard Vernier-Palliez, Swedish Ambassador Wilhelm Wachtmeister, Danish Ambassador Otto Rose Borch, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Presidential Assistant Edward V. Hickey Jr. and Assistant Secretary of State Nicholas Veliotes.
Whalen Strobhar, the AMA's deputy executive vice president, pooh-poohed reports of a large staff of lobbyists in the organization's Washington office. "We have five but we like to think they're effective."
Equally circumspect about what effect last night's party might have on AMA lobbying efforts, Strobhar said: "I have a feeling that anything we did in the public interest is in the interest of the profession and whatever its legislative interest is."
To Nevelson's art dealer, Jeffrey Hoffeld of New York's Pace Gallery, the entry by the AMA into the world of art collecting gives its members "a sort of renaissance-man image, that of being scientists and humanists. No doubt that has power upon the Hill."
Those saluting Nevelson's first commissioned works in Washington included her son, Mike, 62, also a sculptor. A dealer once said of him and his mother, he told a dinner guest, "Louise is the moon -- Mike is the son."