Tales of Capitol Art

Mountains and clouds loom large in Hart atrium

Not even a solid black mountain range stretching 51 feet in the air and a pile of flat, oddly bending clouds can steal the attention of harried congressional staffers. They walk by the 38-ton “Mountain and Clouds” sculpture in the Hart Senate Office Building virtually every day, but few look up from their BlackBerrys long enough to appreciate one of the Capitol’s most distinctive works of art.

Coming in through a low-ceiling lobby at the east entrance, the structure’s 75-foot base is all that’s initially visible. But after passing security and into the nine-story, vaulted atrium, the five mountain peaks and four black clouds suspended above come into view. 

{mosads}The matte mountains consist of four flat-steel plates balanced on two arching legs. The overlapping aluminum plates composing the clouds curve into various shapes hoisted by a shaft attached to the ceiling. 

The piece offers a sharp contrast to the polished salmon floor tiles, gray-white marble walls and skylight ceiling. It represents a break from the traditional works (statues, busts and paintings) dominating the Capitol’s art collection and complements the contemporary feel of Hart’s interior, stacked with office windows, stairwells and balconies. 

Along with tall potted plants around it, “Mountains and Clouds” almost makes viewers feel like they’re “outside inside,” Associate Senate Curator Melinda K. Smith said. 

It was commissioned in 1976 to animate the contemporary atrium of the then-under-construction Hart Building and was the brainchild of sculptor Alexander Calder. 

Calder is credited with developing two of the chief formal innovations of 20th-century sculpture — the “mobile,” or suspended, freely moving, multipart sculpture and the “stabile,” or fixed, freestanding counterpart to the mobile. 

In November 1976 “Mountains and Clouds” was slated for construction after Calder brought a scale-model of the piece to the Capitol architect and finalized preparations. It was to be the first time Calder combined independent mobile and stabile structures. He had mounted the forms atop one another before, but had never used them separately in a single piece as he anticipated to do with moving clouds and stationary mountains. 

The night following his meeting, Calder died of a heart attack. Because he already agreed to the building terms, it was decided that the project should go ahead. But in 1979 its completion was threatened when funds for the sculpture were tabled because of cost. It wasn’t until 1982 that financing resurfaced when then-Sen. Nicholas Brady (R-N.J.) formed the Capitol Art Foundation to raise money for the enterprise. And in 1986, four years after the Hart Building opened, the sculpture was finished and installed. 

Through its combination of mobile and stabile structures, “Mountains and Clouds” is a one-of-a-kind work. While the clouds haven’t been in motion since a mechanical malfunction shortly after their installation, the work still stands as an inimitable blend of the sculptural forms innovated by Calder and gives a modern edge to the Capitol’s otherwise more traditional collection. 

Simply put, “it’s a monumental piece,” Smith said.

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