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In Search of Motion: In Search of John Cavanaugh
John Petro

Photo: John Petro

To me, the beauty of DC is in its neighborhoods. With no twinkling downtown skyline to gaze at, I find pleasure in DC’s smaller-scale buildings and Victorian row homes. I was admiring the details of the row homes on Dupont Circle’s Corcoran Street one evening when I noticed the face of a bearded man. It was a sculpture, about three feet high by two feet wide, embedded in the façade of a large white house. The sculpture was dramatically lit from above. The shadows fell across the face like one telling a ghost story with a flashlight underneath the chin.

I crossed the street to get a better look. As I got closer, the sculpture became less of an apparition and grew to be more human. The eyes were staring out, intense but sympathetic. There was a heavy wrinkle in the man’s brow, lending his character a sense of wisdom. The mouth was closed and shrouded in a full beard and mustache. One imagines a loud and booming voice coming from such a mouth. The beard was formed by a series of holes in the material, which I later found out was lead.


The sculpture left quite an impression on me, and I became curious. Where was it from and why was it on this house? There was a plaque on the house, “The Sculptures Featured on This Building Were Created by John Cavanaugh, 1921-1985.” There was a phone number for the John Cavanaugh Foundation, a 202 area code. Two other houses on Corcoran Street bore the same plaque, each one with a relief sculpture above the door.


I wanted to learn more about these sculptures. Why are there three buildings within two blocks that have Cavanaugh sculptures? How did they get there? The plaques had a phone number on them. Being a modern guy, I decided to forego the phone number and searched for the Foundation online.


Art in My Neighborhood


The Foundation website had extensive information on Cavanaugh’s prolific body of work. Cavanaugh lived in Washington from 1964 until his death from cancer in 1985. He created a studio and exhibit space at 1801 Swann Street, which was dubbed “Swann’s Way” after Proust’s novel of the same name.


Cavanaugh is, according to American Artist magazine, “this Century’s master of hammered lead.” Cavanaugh’s discovery of lead in 1962 was a turning point in his career as a sculptor. Cavanaugh had always experimented with different media and techniques, using bronze, clay, ceramics, hammered metal, wood, and, in the last years of his life when he was weakened by illness, wax. It is his works in lead, however, that are Cavanaugh’s legacy.


I ventured over to Cavanaugh’s old studio and exhibit space, Swann’s Way. The building at 18th and Swann Street NW does not especially stand out. I had walked past it before, on the 18th Street side, and not noticed it. There is a picture window with a red and white awning. At the time, the building had a realtor’s sign on the outside.

Photo: John Petro

Walking on the Swann Street side of the building, I saw another plaque like the ones I had seen on Corcoran Street. There are seven relief sculptures on this side of the building, one for each volume of Proust’s massive novel In Search of Lost Time. The name of the building itself is a reference to a character in the book, Charles Swann, and is the title of the first volume of the novel. The sculptures represent different stages of love, a theme that Proust explored heavily.


There was a faded wooden door, which looked as if it had not been used for some time, with what appeared to be French writing on it. The paint was severely weathered and the writing therefore very difficult to make out, but I thought I saw the word “ecole” or “school.”


Cavanaugh held biannual exhibitions in this building from 1964-1984. It was here that Cavanaugh hammered sheets of lead into bas-relief and free-standing sculptures. I tried to imagine the dull sound of a hammer pounding lead. I wondered if his neighbors ever complained of the noise.


Looking at the relief sculptures, I was amazed at the way the metal folded, as if it were fabric. On the leg of one of the female figures, I could see pock marks left by the hammer. Since other parts of the sculpture were smooth as marble, the artist must have intentionally left areas of the sculpture that were somewhat unfinished, perhaps to remind the viewer of the medium and technique.


It was very exciting to have found this facet of my neighborhood’s history. Washington is a city that has no shortage of sculpture. There is a bronzed memorial at nearly every traffic circle and square. As a result we have more equestrian statues of generals and admirals in this city than we know what to do with. In addition, there are two large sculpture galleries in Washington: the Hirshhorn and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.


Very little, if any, of the sculptures featured in these places of national prominence are indigenous to DC. As I learned Cavanaugh’s story, I was amazed at how much his life typified the city and neighborhood in which he lived.


John Cavanaugh


People like to say that there is no such thing as a native Washingtonian; everyone is from someplace else. While it may or may not be true of all DC residents, it was true for Cavanaugh. He was born in Sycamore, Ohio in 1921 and moved around the country many times. After settling in New York for seven years, he moved to DC in 1963 at the age of 42, and lived here for the last 22 years of his life.

Photo: John Petro

While in New York, John had received some important reviews by critics in the New York Times, the Herald, and Art News. He was becoming a new emerging face on the New York art scene. However, when his partner, Philip Froeder, was offered a job at an urban planning firm in Washington, Cavanaugh made the decision to move with him.


The move offered trade-offs. According to a biography written by Maren Strange (which can be seen on the Foundation website, or in In Search of Motion, a catalogue Raisonne published by the Foundation):


“In Washington, the artist benefited from an environment with fewer distractions and a more circumscribed social life to establish a uniquely integrated, satisfying, and productive way of life which enabled him to reach the height of his powers. As friends have repeatedly testified, Cavanaugh finally ‘found himself.’”


However, in exchange for this more isolated and subsequently more productive existence, he fell out of the immediate orbit of the New York scene. According to Foundation director Gordon Alt, moving to Washington “caused him to fall out of ‘critical’ sight on the national scene.”


“Coupled with his annoyance and avoidance with the politics of galleries and dealers, and his success at developing his own exhibit and marketing strategy- he was drawn even further away from any national attention.”


Cavanaugh found it necessary to remain connected to the New York scene. He participated in biennial exhibitions at New York’s Sculpture Center until 1977. At the same time, Cavanaugh was receiving income from his twice-yearly exhibitions in his Washington studio space. According to Strange, “Cavanaugh attributed his mounting sales to a patronage of primarily modest collectors.” He would allow buyers to pay for the pieces in equal installments over the course of ten months.


Cavanaugh was also typical of his neighborhood in his lifestyle. Dupont Circle has a history, at least in the last 50 years, as an “open” neighborhood, or one that is tolerant of homosexuals. Cavanaugh was a man who fought his sexuality for many years, even going so far as to marry and have a child, before coming out to his family in 1956. He was disowned by his mother and brothers, and left his wife and child to move to New York. In New York Cavanaugh met Phillip Froeder, who was to become his life partner until Cavanaugh’s death in 1985.


I was also interested by the fact that Froeder and Cavanaugh had a direct impact on their neighborhood’s historic buildings. The two were heavily involved in acquiring and restoring many of the historic townhouses in the Dupont Circle neighborhood and throughout DC. Cavanaugh worked as a foreman on many of the restoration projects. The two intended for each project to have a sculpture on it. This is how the bas relief sculptures that I saw on Corcoran Street came to be; they were part of the initial restoration. Additionally, a house on Seward Square in Southeast Washington bears a Cavanaugh sculpture; a free standing sculpture of Olive Risley Seward (Olive was a daughter of William H. Seward, Secretary of State in the Lincoln administration). These, along with Swann’s Way, are the only houses that I know of to have Cavanaugh’s work on them and the easiest way to see Cavanaugh’s work in Washington. Other Cavanaugh sculptures in Washington can be found at the US Arboretum, the Office of the Bishop at the National Cathedral, and the offices of The Economist magazine.

Photo: John Petro

Cavanaugh’s Legacy


Gordon Alt, the director of the Foundation, was able to show me some of Cavanaugh’s sculptures that are held by the foundation but are not on display to the general public. Having been impressed by the relief sculptures I had seen, I was doubly impressed by Cavanaugh’s free-standing sculptures. It was hard to imagine Cavanaugh achieving such complex shapes and textures by violently hammering at a sheet of lead. Cavanaugh used a number of instruments to pound at the metal: baseball bats, chisels, hatchets, files, screwdrivers, and hammers. According to Victoria Thorson, writing in In Search of Motion, “Cavanaugh put the lead sheet on the floor, leaned it against a pallet, or propped it up with sand cushions or mattresses to give a flexible surface to hammer against.”


I asked Mr. Alt where Cavanaugh fit in with the art movements of the 20th century. The art scene during Cavanaugh’s life was dominated by critics who dismissed sculptors who worked with figurative or neo-figurative forms. These critics were more interested in abstraction, the idea being that figurative forms were passé and that the evolution and exploration of this type of sculpture was likewise dead. But Cavanaugh was an innovator. Mr. Alt writes:


 “No one has been as creative in his handling of the lead medium, as he has taken the evolution of lead in his sculptures into areas and direction where no artist has ever explored… Cavanaugh’s deep interest in incorporating new techniques and inventing new ways of using his many resources became an underlying strength for him. It allowed him to dramatize the interpretation of his subjects, and he was able to create powerful sculpture that at times challenges our perception and understanding of motion itself…”


I found that I wanted to see more of Cavanaugh’s free-standing sculptures. The last exhibition of his work in Washington was in 1992. While there are plans for Cavanaugh exhibitions in the near future, they will not be in Washington. None of the museums in DC have Cavanaugh sculptures in them. Even some of the sculptures I’ve mentioned in this article are not on public display. The sculpture of the bearded man is currently undergoing renovation (it will be retuned to the house on Corcoran Street when renovated). Those of you who are interested in Cavanaugh’s work should visit the Corcoran Street sites, Swann’s Way, and Seward Square. If you find you’re still interested and want to see more, contact the John Cavanaugh Foundation—fortunately THEY are at least in DC.

Listings associated with this Feature:

John Cavanaugh Foundation

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