“Monad” by Robert Perless is a shiny, bladelike sculpture in Lakeforest Mall. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
4 min

The world’s oldest sculpture is estimated to have been created about 40,000 years ago. Robert Perless’s “Monad” — a shiny metal blade 32 feet tall — is considerably newer. Perless made it in 1978 for Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, Md. Will it stand the test of time?

Forget 40,000 years. Some people worry “Monad” may not be around in four years. Lakeforest Mall closed at the end of March. Its new owners hope to redevelop the 100-acre site. That could involve demolishing the mall and building something new in its place.

WRS Inc., the mall’s new owners, aren’t quite sure what to do with Perless’s “Monad” and three other large abstract sculptures created for the site. These aren’t things you can pick up and put in the back of a station wagon.

In addition to Perless’s mirrored blade, there’s what looks like a massive metal crinkle-cut french fry by the late William Crovello. There’s a pair of columns — one reaching up from the floor, the other hanging down from the ceiling — by late Israeli sculptor Buky Schwartz. And there’s a red curlicue by Chris Byars, a Colorado artist once called the “king of shopping-mall sculpture.”

Teresa Lachin, an architectural historian fascinated by Lakeforest, is worried what will become of the works.

“My hope is we can find a home for these little babies,” she said. Lachin has been reaching out to the mall’s owners and the local art community in search of a solution.

The mall’s fixtures — counters, display cases, appliances from the food court, etc. — will be auctioned next month. The artwork is not included. The mall’s owners tell me they’d love to find a place for the sculptures.

“The challenge is getting them out of the mall in a single piece,” said Len Maenza, general manager at Lakeforest. “And moving them could be more costly than anybody wants to endure.”

There’s the additional complication that the sculptures are apparently not suitable for outdoors. It’s questionable whether they can be altered to withstand the elements.

Large public art — especially large public art in a retail setting — is often at risk. Locals may remember massive, colorful human figures at Route 355 and Montrose Road in Rockville. Seven of them, each nearly 20 feet high, were installed in 1997. Created by Washington Grove artist Joseph Craig English, they adorned the Montrose Crossing Shopping Center, then owned by Giant.

Giant sold the property, and in 2008 the statues were taken down. They were eventually “recycled.”

At age 85, Perless is still making art at his home and studio in Greenwich, Conn. “Monad” resembles a giant propeller blade and is emblematic of his fascination with wind. He started sailing as a boy and for a while, he and his wife, Ellen, lived on a sailboat. He has fond memories of Alfred Taubman, the retail innovator who scattered art throughout his shopping malls, including Lakeforest.

“He actually commissioned these works and selected each work based upon models built for those spaces,” Perless said. “Nothing about the work that went there is arbitrary at all. Of course, he believed art should be incorporated into a daily experience, such as shopping and enjoying yourself. You shouldn’t have to go a museum to experience a work of art. And he thought that would be a good basis for putting this art work into his malls.”

That practice — by Taubman and others — helped support a lot of artists. In 1996, Byars told Colorado Central Colorado Magazine, “I used to get razzed about being the ‘king of shopping-mall sculpture,' as if that wasn’t something a real artist should be doing. But it’s the right approach. It’s very democratic. Art is for people, and if the people are at shopping malls, that’s where the art should be. Art shouldn’t be something kept in museums and segregated from daily life.”

But retail tastes have changed and so has daily life. Enclosed shopping malls seem like old-fashioned relics. Commissions are fewer and existing artworks like the ones at Lakeforest are threatened. What will become of them?

“It’s possible that an auction house might be interested,” said Cheryl Sokolow of C Fine Art in New York. She has sold work by Perless. “Other sculpture parks not terribly far away might be interested in acquiring them. Or you could contact the artist or the estate of the artist to see if they’re interested in having them back.”

“Monad” was a transitional piece for Perless, as he moved from stationary sculptures to the kinetic works he makes now.

“It’s a piece that I feel passionate about,” he told me. “I don’t want it to wind up in a trash heap.”