- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

Impressive at ground level, Andy Goldsworthy’s “Roof” — an enormous construction of nine stacked, low-lying slate domes spanning the National Gallery of Art’s East Building garden on the Pennsylvania Avenue side — is even more dramatic from the gallery’s upper mezzanine level. From this perspective, it looks something like beehives or a village of yurts.

At 139 feet by 35 feet, the sculpture is one of the largest works ever commissioned by the National Gallery. Installed by the British conceptual artist and his team from November 2004 to February of this year, “Roof’s” connected hollow domes hug the ground at 51/2 feet high and 27 feet in diameter, with 2-foot-diameter oculi in their centers.

Mr. Goldsworthy (born in 1956) has favored the domical shape since the 1970s, but nowhere else has he made slate domes that intersect on this scale. They’re forms found in nature, and his fondness for them dates to childhood. He often uses natural materials such as leaves, grasses and a variety of stones in his other well-known ephemeral works.

In accepting the gallery’s commission, the sculptor proposed using his beloved dome form as a low-slung counterpoint to the city’s domed skyline. He wanted his sculpture to reflect attention back to its architectural cousins — the neoclassical domes of, for example, John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial and National Gallery (West Building) as well as the Capitol and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. By using slate from Buckingham, Va. — it was used on the roofs of the Smithsonian Castle and Ford’s Theatre — the artist hoped to tie into other stones used in the nation’s capital.

In true postmodernist fashion, Mr. Goldsworthy has given his work an added historically allusive twist. Instead of looking upward to the city’s skies, viewers look down or directly at eye level at “Roof’s” rounded forms, which easily could date from earlier — even prehistoric — times.

Yet what seizes the eye is not the expression of these intellectual underpinnings but, rather, the power of Mr. Goldsworthy’s aesthetic vision. With what at first look like piles of roughened slate stones, the artist evokes spheres, one of nature’s most basic forms.

Curator Molly Donovan explains that the sculptor’s interest in domical forms grew from his interest in lowly holes in the earth. For him, the holes are sources of energy emanating from much lower regions. The domes, in a sense, lift the holes to space.

Mr. Goldsworthy’s assistants, British wallers by trade, stacked slate — an unusual stone for sculpture — for the domes much as they make dry stone walls back home, but in rounded rather than straight forms. The pieces were to be sized precisely, but the organic material prevented exactitude.

The dome form may be repetitious, but the sculptor has given it variety. For example, surfaces of certain slate sections are rough, others smooth, and some hold different colors because an iron deposit results in a rich orchestration of dissimilar textures and hues. The layering of the slate gives it a rippling motion, suggesting water. Light from the East Building’s generously illuminated spaces adds another dimension, catching the slate’s gray-blue, rust and pale yellow for even richer surfaces.

The public has yet to give its stamp of approval to this unusual work. However, it’s likely to be there for a good while, so there’s still time. With “Roof’s” 550-ton weight, who’s going to move it?

WHAT: “Roof,” a site-specific sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy

WHERE: Ground-level garden area, East Building, National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street NW

WHEN: “Roof” is a permanent installation seen during regular gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-421

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