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Charles Simonds

Landscape/Body/Dwelling, May–October 2009

The first artist selected for the installation program was the American sculptor Charles Simonds, well known for clay sculptures that document the wanderings of a fantastical civilization of “little people” whose landscapes, architectures, and rituals the artist has imagined since the early 1970s.  Because ideas about landscape and nature are so pervasive in his work, Simonds was invited initially to work in the gardens. As he came to know Dumbarton Oaks, however, he found he was also intrigued by correspondences among his work and the Pre-Columbian and Byzantine collections; moreover, he found himself captivated by the institution’s trove of rare garden books, a number of which contained images of the kind that have inspired his work over the years. The outcome was a project that spanned the whole institution.

A wide range of his current sculptures—some architectural, some figural, and some evocative of landscape; most pre-existing but one made especially for the exhibition—was installed between May and October, 2009, in various spaces at Dumbarton Oaks: the Orangery and several terraces in the garden; the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian galleries in the museum; and the space outside the Rare Book Room.  Works in the garden evoked Simonds’s interest in analogies among the growth and decay of the body, architecture, landscape, and plants, as well as his fascination with archaic notions of human and animal physiognomy and the grotesque. Sculpture in the museum suggested connections among the ritual practices of the “little people” and those of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian cultures, his architectures and those of the ancient Americas. The “cabinets of curiosities,” shown alongside documentary films and photographs, collectively comprised the beginnings of a creative autobiography.

Just as Simonds mined collections across the institution, so he also collaborated with staff in most of its divisions. He worked with John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies, to select sculptures for the installation and to identify a range of locations for them within Dumbarton Oaks; with Linda Lott, the librarian of the Rare Book Room, to identify materials for the cabinets of curiosity; with Museum Director Gudrun Bühl and her staff on positioning sculptures in the galleries; and with Garden Director Gail Griffin and her staff on installing sculptures outdoors.

About the Artist

Simonds has been the focus of numerous exhibitions around the world, beginning with a solo exhibition at Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Paris (1975) and an installation for the “Projects” gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1976). Subsequent solo exhibitions include the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1981); the Guggenheim Museum, New York (1983); the Architecture Museum, Basel (1985); Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris (1994); and Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (2003).


The installation Landscape Body Dwelling culminated in a publication, edited by John Beardsley in 2011 and published by Dumbarton Oaks Publications.