Washington has a strong reputation for outdoor sculpture, with art accenting buildings, parks, avenues and museum gardens throughout the city. This tradition has slowly found its way into residential areas through private commissions and neighborhood-sponsored exhibitions, such as the Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, now in progress.
“Outdoor art can be a wonderful addition to the city,” says collector William C. Paley, who has installed bronze sculptures outside his home and office. “It gives people something to reflect on.”
As discovered by Paley and other art collectors, planting art rather than greenery can be more visually arresting and expressive, as well as longer-lasting. Sculpture provides a focal point in a garden, a landmark in a neighborhood and a conversation piece for passersby.
Owners face special considerations in siting outdoor pieces. Paley installed a classically inspired Renoir bronze in a formal lawn. Collectors Ann and Donald Brown strategically positioned abstract sculptures so they can be viewed through the glass walls of their modern house. Cardiologist Gary Mintz ensured his naturalistic garden made room for his artworks.
Size, heft and durability are important criteria for choosing art that will be subjected to rain, wind and extreme temperature changes. Even designs made for the outdoors require regular maintenance. Protective coatings prolong the life of metal and some painted sculptures.
Trees, tree roots and water runoff need to be considered. And firmly anchoring the piece is critical. “You want to make sure the art is not portable, so someone can’t walk off with it,” Mintz says.
Steel disks shift in the breeze, their painted surfaces changing from red to white. The mobile, created by Alexander Calder, tops what the artist called a stabile — a stationary sculpture — in the yard of an extraordinary modern house in the Forest Hills neighborhood near Rock Creek Park.
Like that artwork, the home is assembled from delicately balanced elements. Austrian-born architect Richard Neutra, who helped develop California modernism, designed its redwood-edged roofs and floors to cantilever over a hillside.
Homeowners Ann and Donald Brown, who built the house in 1968, say its open architecture inspired the art displayed around their swimming pool and yard.
“We live in a glass house,” Donald Brown says. “The views to the outside made us want to have something to look at.”
The Browns started their collection about four decades ago, buying Calder’s “Le Flamand.” That work led them to purchase pieces by other artists, some of whom, like Calder, are also represented in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. One is Lucas Samaras, whose off-kilter stack of steel chairs, “Chair Transformation No. 20,” sits on a terrace outside the only addition to the Browns’ house, designed in the 1990s by District architect Heather Cass. Another is British sculptor Barry Flanagan,whose “Boxing Hares” is Don Brown’s favorite piece “because it’s so whimsical.”
The Browns — he’s a retired lawyer and developer; she’s a former consumer advocate who chaired the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in the Clinton administration — spend most of the year in Palm Beach and Martha’s Vineyard. Before leaving Washington, they have the Calder disassembled and stored. The piece has been refinished twice with special paints from the Calder Foundation in New York.
“We want to protect it,” says Ann Brown, “because it’s worth more than the house.”
“In a serious town like D.C., we collect art that has whimsical side to it,” says Trish Vradenburg, a novelist, playwright and television writer. “We collect outdoor art that grabs us but is too large to put in our house.”
The home she shares with husband George in the Woodland-Normanstone Terrace neighborhood of Washington practically has no yard, so the art is displayed on decks at the front of the house.
Outside the main floor are two sculptures by Israeli artist Tolla Inbar cast in durable bronze. A large tortoise keeps company with a seven-foot-tall female figure placed at an arched doorway leading inside the house.
“Her curvature is almost identical to the shape of the doors,” says George Vradenburg, a lawyer.
The upper terrace is treated as a pasture with colorfully painted sculptures of cows. “We like to laugh, and the cows do that for us,” Trish says. “Our only regret is that they don’t give milk — not even chocolate.”
The most humorous piece is a bovine version of Marilyn Monroe purchased online. “We were a little surprised she was seven feet tall,” Trish says. “We needed a crane to lift her up to our porch.”
The rearing cow wears lipstick, false eyelashes and a flaring halter dress in homage to the famous photograph of Monroe, her skirt blowing upward from a subway vent.
“We live near an elementary school, and a lot of kids walk by with their parents,” Trish says. “I often see people staring up at the cows, smiling or laughing. Someone recently told me they are considered a landmark.”
Twenty years ago, cardiologist Gary Mintz turned a Capitol Hill bank into his two-bedroom home and replaced the concrete and asphalt paving surrounding the early 1900s building with lush plantings. The garden was designed by the District landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates to accommodate Mintz’s collection of outdoor sculptures, all purchased during the 1980s.
“Depending on the piece, you don’t want plantings that detract from the viewing of the art,” says landscape architect Eric Groft. “Keep the landscape soft and neutral, unless you have a piece that might demand color.” Hostas, elephant ears and a slow-growing witch hazel tree are planted near the most significant piece, a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey. The work, titled “Double L’s,” faces south so its stainless-steel, geometric parts catch the sunlight when set into motion by the wind.
“It is simple, elegant, and its movement is fantastic,” says Mintz, who can view the Rickey from his art-filled living room through glass doors within the bank’s original entrance. On the bluestone-paved patio near the Rickey is “Faceted Conical Form,” a large ceramic piece by Paul Chaleff, a sculptor based in Ancram, N.Y., and a column of glass, slate and sandstone by Ohio artist Lee Hervey called “Time Totem.”
Mintz says passersby mostly react to the Rickey piece, especially when it moves. “I remember one couple that bet each other as to whether or not it was motorized.” (It is not, rotating instead on precision bearings.)
“Without these pieces, the patio would be functional but boring,” Mintz says.
Outdoor art was not in the picture for Cleveland Page, a piano professorat the University of Maryland, until it showed up in his yard. Four years ago, Page agreed to exhibit a steel sculpture as part of the Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial.
The abstract work, called “Conversation 1,” was created by Kensington artist Nancy Frankel as a study of contrasts: One totem is angular and painted blue-green, while the other is curved and colored red.
“They are different but talk to each other and need each other for completion,” Frankel says. “The theme arose out of my awareness of the growing diversity in our society and our need to get along.”
For about six months, the seven-foot-tall sculpture stood in Page’s sloping yard next to a cherry tree. “I got used to seeing it,” he says. “When it came time to take it away, I said no. I didn’t want to be without it.”
After Page bought the piece, Frankel replaced the temporary wooden platform under the sculpture with a permanent steel base supported on concrete pilings.
In May, another work was added to Page’s yard
as part of the current biennial, which runs through Oct. 25.
The installation of brightly colored, plywood panels by Hartwood, Va.-based artist Greg Braun is attached to the railing of the steps leading to the home’s front door. “My piece uses the grand staircase in front of the home to amplify the transition from public street activity to private home life,” Braun says.
Page has no plans to buy the work, but he is considering a sculpture for the deck behind his house. “I like to be surrounded by art,” he says. “It identifies my house from my neighbor’s. When I give directions to family and friends, I just tell them, ‘Look for the sculpture in the yard.’ ”
Growing up in Manhasset, Long Island, philanthropist and cigar company owner William C. Paley played under the watchful gaze of “Venus Victorious,” a bronze nude sculpted by French impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
“This lady was part of my childhood,” Paley says. “The statue was in our back yard, and I remember climbing on it as a kid.”
Paley’s father, CBS founder William S. Paley,purchased the 1914 sculpture as part of his art collection, most of which is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After his death in 1990, the younger Paley acquired the Renoir from the family estate and installed it in the yard of the McLean, Va., home he shares with his wife, Alison.
“It anchors the house and creates a link to my personal history,” says Bill Paley, who has served on museum boards and collects works by local artists.
The statue stands between two boxwoods at the end of a spacious lawn extending behind the home’s rear colonnade. The formal setting is an appropriate backdrop; Renoir may have been influenced by the classical myth of the judgment of Paris and biblical imagery of Eve. “She’s my idol when it comes to body type,” says Alison Paley, a real estate developer and avid gardener, of the voluptuous figure.
Living with the sculpture led Bill Paley to install another bronze piece in front of his office off Dupont Circle. “David’s Lyre” by Washington artist John Dreyfuss is gracefully curved like the musical instrument, but with no strings attached.
“I wanted to add to the art of the city,” Paley says. “Washington has a rich history of outdoor sculpture.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Post’s Real Estate and Magazine sections.
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Every two years since 2008, contemporary artworks have blossomed in the yards of homes near Washington Circle for the enjoyment of residents and visitors. This year’s Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, on view through Oct. 25, features a mews garden mural, sculptural window canopies and porcelain leaves among the 16 works by 15 artists. (Go to the biennial’s Web site for a map and a schedule of artist-led tours.)
The six-month exhibitions, which began in 2008, were inspired by the sculptures dotting Capitol Hill. Foggy Bottom “is more compact and it’s easy for people to tour,” says Jackie Lemire, co-director of the biennial. Though the organization doesn’t keep attendance numbers, “we purchase 10,000 brochures and have less than 1,000 left after the six months of the show,” she says. This year’s show was funded through a $60,000 grant from the Hilton Garden Inn, in-kind contributions and donations.
Some homeowners are so taken with the pieces placed in their yardsthat theypurchase them: Four sculptures have become permanent fixtures in the neighborhood.
— Deborah K. Dietsch