Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Road Trip - Storm King Art Center
This summer I had the opportunity to visit Storm King Art Center, a destination that I had wanted to go to see for many years. It is a place that I had passed by dozens of times when driving back and forth to Connecticut. Adding to my yearning, one can catch a glimpse of the sculpture-laden South Fields of Storm King from the New York Thruway. They beckoned to me just as the Sirens sang to Odysseus; each time I would ask myself when I would make the time to pause for a stopover. I wonder how many others ponder the same question. And so, I carved out a few hours for a visit, but really an entire day would have been better to traverse the vast acreage and take in all of the art.
Storm King Art Center as a whole feels like sacred ground where particular types of sculpture from the mid-twentieth century have been enshrined for eternity. It simultaneously has the air of an alternate dimension that exists out of time and place. When I crept along the gravel path in the car up to the guard post to purchase a ticket, seeing the giant steel structures dead ahead, I knew that I was about to enter into another world. The specter of artists like Alexander Calder, Alexander Liberman, Isamu Noguchi and Mark Di Suvero loom large over the landscape, literally and in spirit. Like the remains of titans or giants from a lost epoch, their hulking art still commands the rolling topography. But the art has been continually refreshed with new additions.
Initially, I did not give much thought to the specific placement of sculptures: I was caught up in exploration of the site, filled with anticipation that the summiting of each hill revealed new discoveries in the distance. Bit by bit, I became more attentive to the installation of the art and the interplay of specific pieces. In the immediate presence of a massive construction, one can easily be oblivious of other things that might exist in the periphery. For the best long view of what Storm King is all about, one must gaze out in all directions from the vantage point of Museum Hill, where the main building is located. It was here, looking over the same South Fields visible from the freeway, that I appreciated how the angularity of Mark di Suvero’s work punctuated the open land, contrasting with the trees and framed by the horizon line. I was also attuned to perspective and vanishing point in the way I might consciously think about them only when faced with a very intentionally rendered Renaissance painting. There is something extraordinary about having the opportunity to look first from extremely far away, then advancing to close inspection.
Quite unlike installations by the same artists in an urban setting, where the art is hemmed in and often dominated by surrounding architecture, the undeveloped land offers a context in which the artist’s creation is the undisputed focal point. In the precious and few open areas throughout a city, public sculpture is most successful when it manipulates and makes people aware of the way they use said spaces. But they are too often invisible to a desensitized populace: fading into the background can be a real danger. To illustrate, I think of works by Alexander Calder and Alexander Liberman that I regularly walk past on Penn campus, and the drastic difference in the way I experienced work by the same artists at Storm King.
Am I spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing the behemoths? Equally excellent works of mid- to smaller scale are clustered in and around the museum building. A favorite of mine was Ursula Von Rydingsvard’s LUBA. So new was the piece that its intoxicating perfume of charred cedar added a deeper level sensory enjoyment. It would have been perfectly appropriate to offer one of Louise Bourgeois’ giant spiders on the park grounds; instead visitors get the unexpected treat of a stone-cylinder miniature landscape reminiscent of the basalt columns at Giant’s Causeway.
There was the brainy comparison of having a Louise Nevelson at the front of the museum, matched at the building’s direct opposite end by a more recent work from Chakaia Booker, arguably a descendant of the same assemblage values. I delighted in the wonderful trickery of Alyson Shotz’s Mirror Fence, was perplexed by the rambling and twisty bamboo space-frame construction by Stephen Talasnik, and felt oddly entranced by John Bisbee’s squiggly spheroids.
Unfortunately, I ran out of time on my visit, just barely scratching the surface. But I will return.