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    Sculpture Garden

The National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden sits just west of the Gallery’s main building, and just east of the Smithsonian Museum of natural History. It contains almost two dozen large modern and contemporary works, situated around a central fountain that doubles as an ice rink (from mid-November through mid-March).

While most works are indeed sculpture, art forms from mosaics to industrial design are also represented, covering the years from 1902 to the present. Going clockwise from the corner of Constitution avenue and 9th avenue, here are the highlights:

Marc Chagall, Orphée (1969) This mammoth 170-square-foot mural or glass tile loosely depicts the legend of the Greek artist Orpheus, who was said to entrance all living things with his music. Look closely and you may see references to Chagall’s emigration to the United States in the early 1940s.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1998) It's a giant, colorful, circular eraser, almost 20 feet tall. Sure, if you’re an art critic, it’s easy to point out that making small everyday objects big is a straightforward way around not having any other ideas. On the other hand, the tilt of the rubber wheel and spread of the eraser’s blue “fingers” suggests a lightness of movement that belies its 5-ton weight. We love it. Other examples are in Seattle and Las Vegas.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider (1996) In our review of Ms. Bourgeois’ work at the Hirshhorn, we mention that she’s also known for a series of bronze sculpture depicting giant spiders. Here’s one of them, and it’s exactly as terrifying as you imagine. It’s got to be extra scary after dark, but ahhh, we’re busy that night. Let us know if you happen to walk by it.

Tony Smith, Wandering Rocks (1967) A series of squat, three-dimensional shapes that represent rocks, this is one of five such installations around the world. The interesting thing about the installations is that Smith apparently never said how the pieces are supposed to be arranged relative to each other, instead leaving the decision up to the curators. That makes the “wandering” part of the title appropriate.

Mark di Suvero, Aurora (1992) di Suvero has another large outdoor sculpture over at the Hirshhorn—Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore)—done 25 years earlier than Aurora, and it’s nice to be able to compare both of these within a short walk. Aurora’s steel beams and curves are bound to a dense central mass, and all of the steel has been left unpainted to rust. In contrast, Are Years What is light, open, and bright red. They both work, but in different ways, and that’s a good example of how an artist can use material and void together.

David Smith, Cubi XI (1963) When the singularity occurs and our robotic overlords have taken over, mankind’s last collective thought might be “these robot bodies look familiar.” So if you see Cubi XI, you can at least go out knowing where you’ve seen them before. Smith has a second sculpture here—Cubi XXVI—although it’s more evocative of di Suvero’s Are Years What over at the Hirshhorn than Smith’s Cubi XI.

Alexander Calder, Cheval Rouge (Red Horse) (1974) Calder is better known for his mobiles, but this sculpture, an abstract representation of a horse (or horses), is great, capturing the flowing curves of an equine body, plus the rounded projection of a horse’s chest and neck.

Roy Lichtenstein, House I (1998) House I is a mesmerizing case study on the use of perspective. It’s a set of flat, two-dimensional panels, painted to look like a three-dimensional home. You’ll find yourself walking past it at different angles just to see how the effects are done. Kids love it.

Roxy Paine, Graft (2008) Graft is a concrete and stainless steel, life-size tree that’s positively captivating in the right light. The work’s title is a play on the word’s definitions, which include splicing part of one tree on to another, so that they both grow together, and corruption, which we’ve heard happened once in Wwashington, D.C.

Hector Guimard, An Entrance to the Paris Métropolitain (1902) Guimard designed the entrances for Paris’s then-new subway system in 1900, and to say that the style caught on is an understatement. Done in the art nouveau style, more than 80 of them still exist today (and they’re protected national treasures). The few that have been removed due to wear have been snapped up and restored by collectors and museums as iconic examples of France’s belle epoque aesthetic.

Other Lands at National Gallery of Art