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‘We have half a piece of art’: Chris Murphy continues quest to reinstall Calder clouds

By Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call
Published: May 26, 2024, 5:05am

WASHINGTON — On gun control, health care and immigration, Christopher S. Murphy has gained ground by building coalitions. On the project to refabricate and rehang a portion of Alexander Calder’s “Mountains and Clouds” sculpture in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building, he’s tilting at windmills on his own.

“I might be a bit of a Don Quixote on this,” the Connecticut Democrat quipped in an interview this week about a project nearly 10 years in the making, with no clear end in sight and few vocal supporters on the Hill. “It just seems sad to me that everybody here is so accepting that we have half a piece of art. You’d never chop off half a painting and keep the other half up.”

Since Calder’s “clouds” were removed in 2014 for a safety study, Murphy has periodically lodged his frustrations with the massive, half-complete art installation that’s made its home in Hart since the 1980s. Last week, at a Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations budget hearing with acting Architect of the Capitol Joseph DiPietro, Murphy again asked for a status update.

“Is there any chance that before I leave the Senate, or at least before I die, we can get the clouds back up there?” the senator asked.

The answer? Maybe. But the design specifications and sheer size of the Calder piece make it a challenging task.

DiPietro didn’t provide a timeline at the hearing, but a spokesperson for the project, who is working with donors and the Calder Foundation, said in an email that the clouds could be rehung as soon as the summer of 2026. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the AOC said a recent donation will allow for completion of the design and alterations and estimated a fall 2026 installation.

Murphy is skeptical.

“I don’t necessarily accept that timeline,” he said, after almost a decade chasing down updates and advocating the reinstallation.

Calder, the iconic American sculptor who for much of his life owned a farmhouse in the bucolic Litchfield Hills of Murphy’s home state, was known for his large public sculptures and his use of mobiles. His work features prominently at the National Gallery of Art, as well as other D.C. museums.

When construction on Hart began in the 1970s, Calder was approached to submit a design to fill the dramatic, nine-story atrium. In typical fashion, he conceived of something grand. The “mountains” would stand 51 feet tall and become the focal point of the airy, sun-soaked ground floor of the building. The clouds would rotate in the air above, powered by a motor.

Calder presented his model to the Architect of the Capitol on Nov. 10, 1976. He died the following day, and complications ensued. Public funds were cut for the project in 1979, and it looked like the whole thing might be nixed. It was only after a fundraising campaign, led by former New Jersey Sen. Nicholas F. Brady, that the full-size sculpture was created and assembled. According to the AOC, it cost $650,000 and is an outlier for Calder because the artist didn’t oversee its final stages.

“I’m not a Calder expert, but I understand why this is an exceptional work in his portfolio. In part, that’s what makes it so interesting,” Murphy said.

The clouds, which were composed of four aluminum pieces with a cumulative weight of more than 4,000 pounds, were hung in 1985. The mountains were installed a year later.

The clouds stopped turning in the 1990s, according to The Washington Post, and the mobile was stationary until 2014, when it was lowered so its structural integrity could be tested. It was deemed unsafe and disassembled.

No money has been appropriated for the refabrication and reinstallation of the clouds, but Murphy doesn’t think financing is a problem. He said there were several “well resourced” Calder collectors who want to see the project completed. And the Calder Foundation has been supportive, Murphy said.

“I think the Architect of the Capitol has slow-walked this for a decade. And I think that, for most of the last decade, the only reason the AOC moves on this is because they get pushed by me or pushed by the Calder Foundation,” Murphy said.

The AOC, through a spokesperson, did not respond directly to Murphy’s assertions.

Striking a hopeful note was Christian Quilici, who said he helps manage the project on behalf of donors Jon and Kim Shirley and serves as a liaison between the foundation and Congress. “As of today, we are still information-gathering and hammering out details with our selected fabricator,” he said in an email.

Quilici said the mobile will be transformed “using state-of-the-art technology and materials that were unavailable in the 1980s and an updated mechanism to be incorporated so that the Clouds can finally move — realizing the majestic experience that the artist originally intended.”

“They will be lighter, safer and easier to hang,” Quilici added, although he couldn’t provide details on other technical aspects of the installation or the cost. A more detailed announcement from the foundation and the donors is expected this summer, he said.

Murphy didn’t wax poetic about the meaning of the sculpture (and Calder reportedly didn’t like to publicly analyze his own work). But he believes democracy requires an investment in the arts and he likes when the government is willing to take a big swing.

“I don’t like small-minded government,” Murphy said. “To me it symbolizes a government that’s willing to think big and have big ambitions.”

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