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May 17, 2024

National Gallery of Art Acquires Four Sculptures by 20th- and 21st-Century Artists

Dario Robleto, "Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas"

Dario Robleto
Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017
cut and polished nautilus shells, various cut and polished seashells, various urchin spines and teeth, mushroom coral, green and white tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, colored pigments and beads, colored crushed glass and glitter, dyed mica flakes, pearlescent paint, cut paper, acrylic domes, brass rods, colored mirrored Plexiglas, glue, maple
overall: 190.5 x 181.61 x 109.22 cm (75 x 71 1/2 x 43 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of the Collectors Committee

Washington, DC—The National Gallery of Art has acquired four significant sculptures by contemporary artists Dario Robleto, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Christo, and Chen Zhen. These works broaden the representation of the modern and contemporary collection and contribute to our goal of reflecting the nation.

Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas (2017) by Dario Robleto (b. 1972)

Contemporary artist Dario Robleto’s conceptual practice is often based on scientifically informed inquiries. For Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, the artist imagined what gift might be given to extraterrestrials to best represent planet Earth. One of Robleto’s most significant projects within a growing body of work about the search for alien life, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas uses elemental, primary forms to craft a message of generosity that other species might be able to understand.

Robleto was inspired by the work of scientists, like Carl Sagan, who were interested in creating a transplanetary shared language. This work is exemplified by the 1977 Voyager Golden Records, which were launched into space carrying sounds and images representing the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Among the sculptural objects included in Robleto’s proposed gift are carefully incised nautilus shells placed among arrangements of tiny animal bones and other natural and man-made materials. The compositions suggest flowering growth, butterfly wings, and other natural phenomena that draw the human eye. With careful balance and symmetry, Robleto has employed specific colors—including magenta, pink, and purple—found in fossilized cyanobacteria, the oldest lifeforms on Earth.

Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas resonates with our growing collection of objects intended for early modern European kunstkammers—collector’s rooms filled with art, artifacts, books, and specimens of flora, fauna, and geology. To emphasize these connections, Robleto’s installation is currently on view on the Main Floor of the West Building (gallery M-50) near our growing collection of kunstkammer objects.
We have also commissioned Robleto to produce a film that explores the life of 16th-century artist and naturalist Joris Hoefnagel and his most important work, The Four Elements.  This project was nurtured in part while Robleto was a visiting guest artist at our Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, which allowed him to study our collection and engage our curators and conservators as part of his creative process. The film will accompany the exhibition Little Beasts: Art, Wonder, and the Natural World opening in May 2025.

The Curandera's Botanica
(2008/2023) by Amalia Mesa-Bains (b. 1943

A major figure in the history of Chicanx and Latinx art in the United States, Amalia Mesa-Bains is known for amplifying Mexican American domestic practices in elaborate “altar installations,” as she has called them. These works often blend political, familial, communal, and personal histories and emphasize female domestic practices and Indigenous spiritual traditions.

Part of her Venus Envy series, The Curandera’s Botanica was created after the artist was in a serious car accident in 2003. It commemorates the role of spirituality and folk remedies in her healing process. By juxtaposing organic materials used in traditional medicine with the stainless steel furniture of conventional medicine, the installation evokes the blend of cultural practices that is common among people of Mexican descent. Hanging on the wall next to an autopsy table is a lightbox displaying a photograph of the artist’s grandmother, who was a folk healer. On the top of the table are various jars, candles, and chemistry tools, as well as an artist’s book that includes information about her grandmother’s healing practices. On the far left is a painting by Juan Boza, the late Cuban American artist who introduced Mesa-Bains to Afro-Caribbean healing practices. Inside a cabinet are references to the artist’s husband, Richard Bains, who recovered from an illness around the same time she was healing after her accident. The floor is covered with lavender, and various depictions of the Virgin Mary appear throughout, including Our Lady of Guadalupe (patron saint of Mexico and the Americas) and Our Lady of Charity (patron saint of Cuba). In the Americas, these depictions of the Virgin Mary are commonly linked to deities in Indigenous and African belief systems.

The scale and dense arrangement of The Curandera’s Botanica suggest the struggle and intensity of healing and the ways communities of color lean into Indigenous and African Diasporic healing practices to navigate trauma and illness. Mesa-Bain’s installation, with its feminist and female-centered narrative, helps expand our collection of contemporary works by women.

Yellow Store Front
(1965) by Christo (1945–2020)

We are home to the largest, most comprehensive public collection of works by Christo. Born in Bulgaria, Christo eventually escaped the Eastern bloc and made his way to Paris, where he met his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009). The two moved to New York City in 1964. Yellow Store Front, made the year after they arrived in New York, adds a significant architectural work by this influential artist to our collection.

Before he became renowned for the large-scale, site-specific installations he made with Jeanne-Claude, Christo made autonomous sculptural works that included wrapped packages and objects, shop windows, and store fronts. Part of a small group of life-sized commercial building façades, Yellow Store Front reveals a fascination with the capitalist packaging of western Europe and the United States and offers a critical perspective on the commodification of the art object. Often using opaque materials, Christo’s early works deny the viewer access to the interiors of his spaces. Raising the question of whether something or nothing is being presented, these windows and store fronts also comment on display practices in museums and their place in contemporary culture.

Inner Body Landscape
(2000) by Chen Zhen (1955–2000)

Celebrated Chinese French artist Chen Zhen’s practice focused on cross-cultural social dynamics, reflecting the artist’s absorption of different traditions, contexts, and aesthetic approaches in an increasingly globalized world. Inner Body Landscape exemplifies his vision of an interconnected human existence. It is a key work by an artist who contributed to the growth of global artistic expression in the 1990s.

Diagnosed at 25 with an incurable illness, Chen deepened his investigations into the fragile relationship between the body and the spirit. About two years before his death in 2000, Chen began to study traditional Chinese medicine, recognizing its strong conceptual connection to his art. Inner Body Landscape, one of the artist’s last works, comprises five connected sculptures that suggest the Five Elements of Chinese philosophy. Each sculpture includes hundreds of wax candles in five colors (red, white, purple, black, and yellow), representing the intertwined, fluctuating interactions in the universe. Evoking every level of existence, from the macro to the cellular, Inner Body Landscape references both a greater human experience and that of individual lives. The candles form lattice-like structures, suggesting human anatomy or other organic forms found in nature. This installation suggests, according to traditional Chinese belief, that the entire body, rather than just the disease, must be treated. A related ink and wash drawing study accompanies this acquisition and offers further insight into the artist’s exploration of landscape-like forms that also resemble human organs.

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