Outside Edge: Edward Helmore at the White House

When Jacqueline Kennedy first conceived of a First Lady's Garden at the White House, she probably did not imagine the integration of modern sculpture and statuary into political life. More than 20 years later, Hillary Clinton has unveiled 12 chosen works under the title of 'Statues into Sculpture'.

'Art is not a marginal luxury. It should be accessible to as many people as possible. Now the work of some of the finest American artists will be available to an entirely new audience,' she announced. 'The thousands of visitors who pass through the White House each day will be able to look out at the colonnade windows and will be able to share in the aesthetic beauty and the emotional power of these sculptures.'

The 12 sculptures on view were chosen from art museums in the mid-western states and subsequent shows will exhibit from the West, South and North-east. The show features a black-and-red mobile by Alexander Calder, two pieces by Manuel Neri dated 1921 and 1923, a voluptous woman by Lachaise Gaston, abstract works by Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly and Louise Bourgeois, figurative offerings from Paul Manship and George Segal as well as contemporary work by Richard Hunt and Judith Shea.

'I wish my parents were alive to see this,' Ellsworth Kelly remarked. 'My dad would have said, 'Wow.' '

'We selected almost equally from abstraction and figuration,' explained George W Neubert, the curator of the display and director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska.

'All evoke references to nature and the human figure to help the general public begin to understand the transition in American sculpture from forms with storytelling ideas to forms that have their own language.' Sculpture has a peculiar romantic resonance for the First Lady: her first date with Bill Clinton was a visit to the sculpture garden at the Yale Art Gallery.

Though traditional American painting and sculpture are a permanent part of White House decor, the current show is only the second time 20th-century art has been shown at the White House, the last time was a show of Andrew Wyeth paintings during the Nixon Administration. Depending on funding, it is hoped that the exhibition will continue throughout next year. 'I think it would be a real eye-opener for the American people,' insists J Carter Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, under whose auspices the show was conceived.

'It would communicate the belief that art is part of life and part of the First Family's life.'

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