Kaid Benfield Archive


Brightening the city’s (and NRDC’s) streetscape

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 5, 2010 at 1:27PM

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  sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle (photo c2010 FK Benfield))

Speaking of giving to the street, that’s exactly what DC’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project is doing, right under my office window, in the median of the street where NRDC’s Washington offices are located.  The project comprises, for now, four large-scale and somewhat whimsical sculptures by the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, along with some nice landscaping.  The works will remain installed at least until the winter, and possibly again next spring, after which they will be replaced by works of another artist.

The exhibit is being curated by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, with whom NRDC shares the block.  At one end is a basketball player sporting number 23, perfect for my love of hoops.  sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle (photo by Oren Levine, creative commons license)Some say that, given the number, it is meant to represent Michael Jordan, but I’m going with LeBron (or, heck, even Shelden Williams).  There is also a multi-headed “Serpent Tree,” “Three Graces,” and someone standing on a dolphin. The pieces are colorful and fun, best experienced on foot while passing by.  They make our block more inviting and walkable, and I love them.

Not everyone does, apparently.  Writing in The Washington Post, critic Blake Gopnik dismissed the pieces as “Plop Art,” and even threw in the culture snob’s tired intimation that Washington isn’t New York when it comes to this sort of thing.  Art should be “substantial,” he asserts, not merely amusing (or, to use Steve Mouzon’s vocabulary, “delightful”).  Me, I think the guy must be in need of a significant other, or at least a sense of humor.  Speaking of which, renowned sculptors Claes Oldenburg, Duane Hanson, Joan Miro, and J. Seward Johnson – or their ghosts – would like to say hi.

“Bringing NMWA out into the street of our community has been a dream of the museum . . . We are confident that as the first and only major sculpture boulevard in the nation’s capital, the New York Avenue Sculpture Project will bring a new liveliness to our neighborhood,” said museum Director Susan Fisher Sterling in a press release.  

  Basketball Player #23 by Niki de Saint Phalle (photo c2010 FK Benfield)  NRDC's building is in the background (sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, photo c2010 FK Benfield)

The release continues:

 “The artist whose work was selected to inaugurate this new public art exhibition program is the self-taught French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. Her nine to 15-foot high whimsical, visually playful and colorful works celebrate women, children, heroes, cultural diversity and love. The works represent major themes within Saint Phalle’s career, including the Nanas, Black Heroes, Animals and Totem. The works were selected in consultation with the Niki Charitable Art Trust and federal and local agencies.”  

This can be a city where people take themselves very seriously, and if the NMWA, the Downtown Business Improvement District, and the city, all partners in the venture, want to make a dent in that posture, I say thank you, thank you.  Eventually the project hopes to extend the sculpture for several more blocks up to Mount Vernon Square and the Convention Center to our northeast.