IT’S NOT THAT Kathryn Wat has anything against all the statues of generals on horseback in downtown D.C. The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ chief curator thinks they deserve due respect. But a few years ago, after realizing that sculptures by women were conspicuously absent from the capital city’s public spaces, Wat and her colleagues set out to change that. The New York Avenue Sculpture Project, which displays rotating installations by contemporary female artists, is the realization of their effort “to create balance.”
The DowntownDC Business Improvement District became a full partner in the endeavor, seeking, much like the museum officials, to make New York Avenue “a pedestrian-friendly corridor and strengthen its sense of place as an arts and cultural district.”
Magdalena Abakanowicz is the third sculptor to show her work in the median outside the museum. Her “Walking Figures” (bronze, 2009), 10 nearly nine-foot tall armless, headless figures; “The Second Never Seen Figure on Beam with Wheels” (bronze, 2001) and “Stainless Bird on Pole I, II and III,” dynamic birds in flight (stainless steel, 2009), were installed in September and are on view through Sept. 27, 2015.
Born and bred in rural Poland, where instability has reigned, Abakanowicz, now 84, imbues her work with her experiences of the brutality and deprivation of war and revolution, and 45 years of Soviet domination.
A “pioneer among women creating outdoor sculpture, her reach has been global,” Wat says. Abakanowicz’s pieces are on view in Italy, Japan, South Korea, Israel and Lithuania as well as in Chicago’s Grant Park.
The sculpture project opened in 2010 with Niki de Saint Phalle’s mosaic works, which Wat describes as “vibrant and fun, celebrating women and nature.” She believes “their intensity did help put the project on the map.” Chakaia Booker’s abstract black rubber sculptures, which followed in 2012, “are dynamic, too, but edgier.”
Wat characterizes Abakanowicz’s sculptures as “more serious.” The artist takes on universal issues, including the power of nature, destruction and hope.
“By abstracting figures pretty dramatically (headless and or/armless, plus very simplified forms overall), each figure can represent any gender, any human identity — a universal humanity,” Wat observes.
“They have this push-pull quality that I find very provocative: in one respect, they’re timeless and formal looking with symmetry and strong shapes. But they embody and evoke a lot of emotion, too,” she adds.
Visitors often remark on the power of these pieces, she says. “They see the seriousness, and come into the museum to ask thoughtful questions about what the work means. Despite its location, this is not drive-by art.”
Wat went to Marlborough Gallery’s warehouse in New York City to select Abakanowicz’s pieces for the site.
“First and foremost, I sought works that would represent different aspects of the artist’s work. Because we have to place sculptures within a pre-determined amount of space with height and weight restrictions, I also always look for objects that will fit and can be installed properly,” she says.
“In the case of ‘Walking Figures,’ because our existing sculpture pad would not accommodate all 10 figures, we ended up constructing a larger pad. That was an effort worth making for such an iconic piece,” she explains.
The installation was carefully designed, considering both scale and content. And Wat is pleased with the effect.
“I like having the single figure (“The Second Never Seen Figure…”) lead things off at 13th Street, as it faces out into that intersection, and the birds sailing off toward 12th Street and points east; I think there’s a nice balance there. Because the palette of the sculptures is quiet — grays and browns — there’s a subtlety to this installation that’s different from the previous two.”
And perhaps most noteworthy, she points out, “The works blend in more with the urban surroundings, but I like the feeling that they’re so integrated into the space.”
The process for selecting an artist starts with the museum, which provides review materials about candidates to members of an advisory group consisting of Wat and museum director Susan Fisher Sterling, both non-voting members, and 10 representatives from civic organizations. In January, limited in her suggestions to work that can be available for at least one year, Wat will initiate the search for next sculptor in the series.
Meanwhile, time is ample to examine and appreciate Abakanowicz’s work. Like all great art, these sculptures make you think and feel — even surrounded by the cacophony of the urban streets. Stop by rather than drive by because close up, and especially at night, the larger-than-life scale of the army of armless and headless bronze figures is striking. That the figures, cast from textile models the sculptor built by hand, are hollow from the rear yet somehow individualized by varying textures on the fronts, accentuates their intensity. The missed potential for movement implied by the motionless walking men, the single headless figure joined to a beam supported by two immobile wheels as well as the three birds immobile in flight is good reason to pause amid your own journey on New York Avenue.
Ellyn Wexler is a freelance writer living in Gaithersburg.