Two modern sculpture gardens face other on either sides of the National Mall in Washington DC, the Hirschhorn Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, both offset by the under-appreciated National Archives and the highfalutin Hirshhorn Museum. In the National, David Smith, Joan Miro, a stable Calder, a macho Mark di Suvero, and annoying optical illusion by Lichtenstein, and a dozen others.

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (above) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen from 1999, in the DC context, is the most fun. Made in 1999, to the average Washingtonian it is almost an abstract image of a red wheel with with blue stalky hair. I asked a nearby pre-adolescent to identify the subject – just baffled. He wasn’t certain what a typewriter is, less this item of ridiculous scale. But in context, across the street from the National Archives, they might still use these things, and perhaps at a ridiculous scale.

Not exactly a forgotten artwork, but a quickly forgotten joke. There are spaces available for future works in this garden – perhaps Oldenburg and van Bruggen could update with a giant delete key with Karl Rove’s fingerprint on it.

If you want to skip to the good stuff, DC Memorial and Monuments seems a comprehensive catalog of outdoor artworks in the District. DbKing has created a great Flickr collection of DC sculptural art – many with helpful side comments – and a great tour of the Adams Morgan District.

In 1873 successful Philadelphia sculptor and craftsman Joseph Bailly created a stern bronze of John Rawlins, aid de camp to Ulysses S Grant and his Secretary of War.

Born in France in 1825, Bailly also was creator of a royal Franklin for the interior of the Philadelphia Public Ledger Building (seen at right), an elegant George Washington, located outside the Philadelphia City Hall, and a very large bronze of John Witherspoon, also in Philadelphia.

Like Grant, Rawlins organized an infantry to join the War Between the States, and found a place at Grant’s side through thick and thin, becoming a trusted and firm adviser during Grant’s dark days of drinking. Later when traveling to dry climates to stave off tuberculous, Rawlins founded the city of Rawlins, Wyoming (below, circa 1960).

The Rawlins sculpture above is both formal and slightly surreal, on a high granite pedestal overlooking a rectangular pond in Rawlins Park on E and 18th Streets NW. Cast from a cannon Rawlins captured, the artwork shows his heavy uniform; holding field glasses and a walking stick, a wet wild beard (look at that beard!), a potent correct posture, his high wide gaze.

At the west end of the Mall are two (at least two) underestimated artworks, overwhelmed by their context and proximity to greatness. In my opinion, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the most important artwork of the 20th Century. Visiting is a transformative experience. simple, straightforward, accessible to visitors of all ages and cultures, a memorable scar. You see it first from afar and therefore choose to walk toward and into it, often amidst a queue of tourists. Two 246 foot long polished black granite walls point to the offset Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, creating a swirl of questions and conflicts as you enter. Try holding back tears as you read the names. What a loss, what a waste. In the center you stand back and suddenly see your own reflection offset by the thousands of names cut into the shiny black surface. The image of yourself, surrounded by tourists and ghosts lingers, and changes your mind.

More from Maya Lin – Confluence Project, and AIA 25 Year Award.

Glenna Goodacre, LTD created the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, sheltered in a grove of trees 60 yards from Maya Lin’s masterpiece, to help remember the 265,000 women who volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Goodacre, who designed the Sacajawea dollar coin, has a Portland connection. A copy of her full-size bronze of the guide for the Corps of Discovery, carrying Jean-Baptiste, is at Lewis & Clark College. It’s very nice.

Goodacre’s sculpture is potent: four giant figures at eye level, reachable, touchable. Instead of seeking guidance from Lin or honorable memorials on the Mall, Goodacre takes off in the panic of war: a black soldier is splayed out, half dead from a chest wound, his eyes bandaged, mouth open. He’s held up by sandbags and a desperate nurse holding down the wound. Another nurse watches the sky, waiting for the sound of helicopter rotors. A third crouches low, contemplating a damaged helmet.

The memorial is accessible, intriguing, emotional, powerful within it’s context of the panic of war, the danger, the grief. Tourists are drawn in, many leave flowers often set in the open hands of the figures.

At the opposite, southwest side of the National Mall is the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial hosting far fewer visitors, but welcoming them with perhaps the saddest, most succinct inscription on any memorial, remembering another pointless war. The components, only loosely tied together, include fountain, landscaping, architecture, sculpture, and several forms of inscription. The 19 figures on patrol are also rendered by committee, and by Vermont artist Frank Gaylord.

Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.

Wisconsin Korean Veteran’s Memorial
Oregon Korean Veteran’s Memorial
Montana Korean Veteran’s Memorial
Florida Korean Veteran’s Memorial
Kansas Korean Veteran’s Memorial
Texas Korean Veteran’s Memorial