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Politics And Policy
Calder Sculpture Triggers Heavenly Debate in Washington
From the Wall Street Journal of Thu, 25 Dec 2014 19:56:44 EST
The cloud portions (top) of the Calder sculpture used to rotate slowly.
The cloud portions (top) of the Calder sculpture used to rotate slowly. CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—They span 75 feet, weigh 4,300 pounds and can’t move.

The four, black aluminum clouds comprising the once-mobile component of “Mountains and Clouds”—one of the final works of sculptor Alexander Calder, which dominates the Hart Senate office building’s 90-foot-high atrium—haven’t drifted for more than a decade. They once rotated at a gentle speed, but have been frozen in place for years after a bearing failed.

Now, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, where Mr. Calder often worked, is pushing to restore the artistic integrity of the design advanced by Mr. Calder, whose mobiles and other works often incorporated movement. “Right now it’s not really a Calder in that it’s not really doing what Calder wanted it to do,” he said.

But like the Hart building it resides in, the aesthetics of the sculpture have long been up for debate. Some lawmakers and staffers view it as more of a monstrosity than a masterpiece. Several Hart-inhabiting senators expressed skepticism that reviving the clouds’ mobility would mark an improvement.

“Is that one of the pressing problems we have now in the Capitol?” asked Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.).

Mr. Manchin said “the big sculpture” has been known to “make us all dizzy and crazy,” though he noted he, too, worked to restore some artwork in the West Virginia state capitol when he was governor.

“I could live without that,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said of efforts to mobilize the clouds, calling the sculpture “a huge thing.” Mr. Hatch said he liked “art of almost any kind, so I see much value in it,” before adding, “On the other hand, it takes up a lot of space.”

Dedicated in 1987, the sculpture is the only Calder work that combines a separate mobile and fixed, free-standing sculpture that he called a “stabile,” according to the Senate’s website. The “mountains” are made up of 36 tons of sheet steel and rise 51 feet into the nine-story atrium.

“It’s probably a pretty difficult space to fill. I don’t know you could go down to the local art gallery and buy something to fit in there,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who said he deferred to his fellow Connecticut Democrat, Mr. Murphy, on “anything having to do with art.”

During the building’s construction, a panel of curators invited Mr. Calder and four other artists to submit designs for artwork to “enliven the atrium,” according to Senate officials. At the age of 77, Mr. Calder won the commission in April 1976.

He arrived in Washington on Nov. 10, 1976 with a 20-inch sheet-metal model of the work to finalize its placement with the architect of the Capitol. After returning to New York City that night, he had a heart attack in his daughter Mary’s home and died on Nov. 11, according to the Calder Foundation, which refers to the sculpture as a work “after a design” by Mr. Calder, since he didn’t supervise its fabrication.

The work nearly didn’t get built. When soaring inflation caused the price tag of constructing the Hart building to nearly triple, Congress eliminated funding for the sculpture in 1979. But in 1982, Sen. Nicholas Brady (R., N.J.) helped raise $650,000 to pay for its completion.

Nelson Young, an engineer with a background in aircraft and aerospace, constructed the clouds on the floor of Hart, piecing 6-foot segments with around 12,000 rivets, he said in an interview. Later, two men on the roof cranked the clouds aloft with a winch and cable.

Mr. Young programmed the clouds to undergo “some nice random movement, not fast,” with periods of slowing interrupted by pauses and reversals. But after seven years, Mr. Young said, a bearing failed, halting the clouds’ drift.

Mr. Young said he didn’t expect repairing the clouds would be an expensive endeavor. “Washington may complicate this, but it ain’t difficult,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”

Mr. Murphy hopes to build support for the clouds’ restoration after the Architect of the Capitol completes a study early next year assessing whether a 2011 earthquake damaged the sculpture’s structural integrity.

“After we know what we’re dealing with, maybe it’ll become a bit more of a public debate,” Mr. Murphy said. “People have strong feelings about the entire building.”

Indeed, mirroring the mixed feelings toward Mr. Calder’s sculpture, many in Washington didn’t appreciate the contemporary Hart building’s break with traditional architecture. In 1981, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) suggested in a “sense of the Senate” resolution that the plastic covering that had protected the building from wintry elements was preferable to the exterior itself.

“Whereas the plastic cover has now been removed revealing, as feared, a building whose banality is exceeded only by its expense,” said the resolution, which never came to a vote. “Therefore, be it resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that the plastic cover be put back.”

Write to Kristina Peterson at

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