New York Avenue Gets a Brand-New Look

Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:21pm

New York Avenue is no longer the “ugly duckling of downtown,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) recently proclaimed.

Her evidence: a series of oversized sculptures that are part of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, a new collaboration of the city, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and private institutions.

“The working stiffs downtown here also need to see artwork,” Norton said. “I can tell you one thing: People are going to make their way up from the Mall just to see what’s happening on New York Avenue.”

What is happening is a project that seeks to revitalize the downtown New York Avenue corridor with a series of rotating installations of public sculpture slated to continue until 2015.

Four sculptures by the late French artist Niki de Saint Phalle now stand on the median in front of the NMWA. Standing between 9 and 15 feet tall, the statues have robust, exaggerated dimensions and are encrusted with colorful mirrors, glass and stones.

In the 1960s, de Saint Phalle became famous for creating oversized women with undulating features that she dubbed “Nanas.” Three of the four sculptures on New York Avenue are in this tradition. “Les Trois Grâces” consists of three women, covered in colorful shapes and images such as eyes and snakes, frozen in poses of joyful dancing, legs bent and arms suspended in midair. In “Nana on a Dolphin,” an orange woman, red ball held aloft on her palm and right leg curled up in the air rides atop a dolphin striped with red, yellow, blue and turquoise tiles.

The piece “Arbre Serpents,” a bulging tree trunk with golden, mouth-agape snake heads twisting outward like animated branches, is similar to many of the pieces found in de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in the rural town of Garavicchio, Italy. Like the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, the Tarot Garden emphasizes art that is not sequestered behind glass cases but is available for the public to interact with.

“Niki was always very interested in public art because there were always people in contact with the art,” said Marcelo Zitelli, a longtime collaborator with de Saint Phalle who is now a trustee of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation. Zitelli said de Saint Phalle especially prized public art because of its appeal to children, who were able to approach art “without prejudice.”

Passers-by lingered on New York Avenue recently, pausing to scrutinize the vividly colored figures that gleamed dully with light from an overcast sky. A large crowd gathered on the steps of the NMWA and in rows of seats set out for the exhibition’s dedication ceremony, which culminated in Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joseph Biden, cutting a ribbon that stretched behind the stage. Norton echoed the sentiment of other speakers, all of whom praised the project as both an opportunity to prominently display female artists and a chance to inject new life into the New York Avenue corridor.

Eventually, the project will stretch down New York Avenue between 13th Street and Mount Vernon Square, with each of the four medians between featuring temporary installations of art by prominent female artists.