Washington DC

National Galley of Art Sculpture Garden

Astonishing outdoor sculpture typewriter eraser.garden features

There is an astonishing outdoor sculpture garden in Washington DC. You should not miss seeing it.

The National Gallery of Art (NGA) is home to a Sculpture Garden. It is located on the National Mall.

This exotic garden promises adventures that turn back the clock for me. Should I dally at the entrance to the Paris Métropolitain? Might I erase a mistake with a giant typewriter eraser? Should I befriend a mischievous hare straight out of Alice of Wonderland?


The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden features free guided tours.

Astonishing Outdoor Sculpture Garden

Washington D.C. features a myriad of parks: the U.S. Botanic Gardens, the Enid A. Haupt Gardens and Rock Creek Park. But I must confess that my favorite “art park” is NGA’s outdoor sculpture garden.

Comprising 6.1 acres, it is located between 7th and 9th Streets. There are 33 different trees, ranging from Fragrant Snowbell to Weeping American Elm.

An Entrance to the Paris Métropolitain

Guided NGA Tours

Twice a week (between April-June and September-October), the NGA offers guided 50-minute tours of the sculpture garden. Designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin, it opened in 1999. His vision was to create an art museum without a roof, basically a building site without walls. It would be curved, soft and shady.
“When we did the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, I was really thinking that it was a building site that didn’t get a building … It’s not a building for a change – it’s a public garden of sorts, with art, sort of an outdoor gallery. It wanted to be dense and filigree and full as opposed to the big, empty, open, shaft space of the Mall.”—Laurie Olin

History of Sculpture Garden

As early as 1790, it was the vision of Charles Pierre L’Enfant to create a public landscaped garden on the National Mall—known as “the great walk.”

If you haven’t visited the outdoor sculpture garden, prepare to board a rocket ship into the outer regions of the fanciful mind of the artist. This is an amusement park for the creative, the wacky, the child-in-spirit. Sculptures stand 30 feet tall and beg you to lay down on the ground and ponder the sight.

Graft (Roxy Paine)

One of my favorite art installations is “Graft,” designed by Roxy Paine. This enormous shiny, stainless steel tree, in my mind, is bipolar art. One side is calm, showing an artsy progression of tree limbs and trunk. But the artist grafts a distorted alternate side to the tree that is crabbed, twisted, and fraught boughs. What does it mean? The purpose of the conjoining is in the eyes of the beholder.

House I, 1996 (Roy Lichtenstein)

I also like the cartoonish yellow, white and red “House I, 1996” created by Roy Lichtenstein. Ever the illusionist, the magician artist seemingly tips the structure. The side of the house points at me while the other end appears to recede into space, a 3D sculpture. I like to fantasize that if I could walk through the door, would I find the land of Oz?


Red Horse (Alexander Calder)

I imagine galloping towards the clouds if I mount the red horse that stands waiting on the green lawn nearby. Designed by Alexander Calder, the Cheval Rouge (Red Horse) is on long term loan from the Calder Foundation, New York. Built in France, this large-scaled metal sculpture is a sheer delight to anyone who loves horses.

Working at a foundry in Tours, France, Calder fabricated a metal horse with sleek, tapering legs and tensile up-thrust “neck.” His construction captured the real-life thoroughbred’s taut muscles and long back. Regarding his large scale mobiles and stabiles, Calder said he wanted to create art that is playful: “I want to make things that are fun to look at, that have no propaganda value whatsoever.”

Cheval Rouge

Altogether there are 20 different sculptures to see. The docents who lead the NGA’s art tour are always quite knowledgeable and will answer any question, if possible. I was the only person waiting at the meeting place at 130 pm so my guide gave me a private tour. Here are some other highlights.

Thinker on a Rock

This is an all-time favorite tourist place to pose (along with AMOR) for selfie-photos. A hare substitutes for Rodin’s Thinker sculpture. He looks perfectly happy in his garden home. Maybe he is pondering where he can get a carrot?

Thinker on a Rock

AMOR (Robert Indiana)

Bright red, chunky style letter piled two on top two spell out AMOR. It is the artist’s translation of his Love image commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and then issued in 1973 as an 8-cent Love stamp. The reclining O gives a fluidity and expansion to the emotion expressed.

Spider (Louise Bourgeois)

If you are deathly afraid of spiders, you might want to skip this structure. It is creepy but thankfully it doesn’t creep (like spiders can). The artist associated it with her mother so the spider is meant to be maternal. It is a central figure in the artist’s later work.

Four-Sided Pyramid (Sol LeWitt)

This structure (LeeWitt’s term for his sculpture) is composed with modular, quasi-architectural forms. It is Washington DC’s Great Pyramid.

Four-Sided Pyramid

Six-Part Seating (Scott Burton)

A perfect place to end my solo trek in the Sculpture Gardens is this sumptuous setting of red granite six seats. Too often Art is conceived as an object to be looked on a pedestal—Art spelled with a Capital A. The interaction with the object is formal, not friendly.

Burton’s work challenges this assumption. He believed that art should “place itself not in front of, but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience.”

Six-Part Seating

Design of Sculpture Garden

I need wide open spaces to clear by mind and meditate while I walk. I desire art to ponder, surprise and delight. Olin’s design of the Sculpture Garden rewards me with both.

Sometimes I just want to wander up and down the gravel paths. I watch the progression of the seasons as the elms, magnolias, oaks and cedars leaf out, then shelter from the summer’s heat, turn rust in autumn and then stand bare limb in winter.

A Place To Sit

But other times I feel a favorite sculpture calls me. Stand in front of me it seems to beg. Look hard at me. What do you see? The answer is always JOY followed by deeply-felt AMOR for this national jewel on The Mall. Come visit. Soon.

“You want to be able to step out of one kind of space into another kind of a space, and have it be rich in ways the other one wasn’t, not because the other one’s not good. It’s a place to sit. There aren’t really a lot of places to sit out on the Mall itself. That’s the kind of space that says to your eye, ‘Keep moving.’ To your legs, ‘Keep moving.’ Whereas the garden for the National Gallery is a place to come into for respite, to change the focal length for your eyes to see the art, to enjoy water.”—Laurie Olin

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