A Visit to Storm King Art Center

In June 2009, I made my first visit to the Hudson River Valley having long been familiar with it in spirit through the Hudson River School paintings which were housed in a museum in Mountainville. Travelling upstate from the bustle and splendour of Grand Central Station, I had boarded a designated carriage that on arrival, lined up with a platform big enough to hold just five people, where the Hudson, framed by trees and mountains, laps a miniscule beach. It took just an hour to reach the evocatively named Manitou, a place of haunting beauty, a magical land of wide waters and softly rising mountains.

Years later I happened to be reading a newspaper article which mentioned, ‘an Eden, a paradise just one hour away from New York’, I sensed immediately it had to be the place I had visited as it echoed my sentiments entirely. This ‘Eden’ is the Storm King Art Center, a 500 acre sculpture park draped across the Hudson Valley formerly the very museum which had housed the Hudson River School paintings. The museum’s usage has now changed to encompass sculpture from post-World War II to the present and includes gifts, acquisitions and specially commissioned site-specific work and loans. Initially the founder opened the new look Museum to the public with a number of small sculptures acquired in Europe. 

The collection soon included thirteen pieces by David Smith, the important post-war sculptor, who made ‘no separation between painting and sculpting except for one element of dimension’, an exploration that has run through much of modern sculpture. Smith stated that while his technical freedom came from the Spanish sculptor , Julio González, like Smith a painter turned sculptor, his aesthetics were influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Cubism. Indeed, while the box forms of some of the works in his Cube project forward and recede, thrusting into space in every direction like a Cubist painting, in others such as the seminal Cubi XXI (1964) they have a more abstract sense of movement through rotated forms in precarious balance. The piece was gifted to the joint ownership of Storm King and the Whitney Museum of American Art by the Lipman Family Foundation, generous benefactors and former trustees at Storm King. This gift, from Smith’s signature Cubi series, a 10’ sculpture formed from prefabricated stainless-steel boxes, had been on long-term loan, but is now a highly prized part of Storm King’s permanent holding. While the sculpture park already had 13 Smith sculptures in its collection, this was its first Cubi. Smith’s works established the collection, which quickly burgeoned, encroaching on the landscape with magnificent effect as landscape and sculpture became integrated.

Andy Goldsworthy’s over 2,000’ long low-lying, dry-stone Wall that went for a Walk exemplifies this integration insinuating itself snake-like, over the contours of the Center’s countryside. After reaping rocks from around Storm King’s property, former farmland once rich in stone walls, Goldsworthy created a work whose internal elements echo the structure of the overall piece as it settles against the undulating land. The stones rest as they must, subject to forces acting upon them, like a classical drape or the soft folds of a Robert Morris felt.

A newly commissioned installation, Untitled, by American artist, Virginia Overton, which formed part of her recent Outlooks exhibition for the Center, is described by Storm King’s Associate Curator, Nora Lawrence as ‘site-specific, and transformative’. A 500’ thin brass tube, Untitled, mirrors the contours and curves of the land and also carries sound, suggesting ‘tripartite interactivity between itself, Storm King’s visitors and its setting’. Storm King encourages visitors to engage with the work ‘by listening and speaking into either end of it’. The piece work not only the slopes of the field, but also the various sounds, delivering a multi-sensory experience for visitors, ‘— visual, auditory, spatial — as they traverse Storm King’s landscape’.

Overton’s piece with its lengths carried on low supports through the cropped rolling landscape, evokes a gleaming presence hovering over the tall grass and is reminiscent of Klee’s ‘…taking a line for a walk’. Progenitors of Goldsworthy’sWalland Overton’sUntitledare works such as Richard Long’sWalk in Ireland, a ‘dry-stone’ arrangement of stones forming a wandering man-made line, knitted into the arrangement of those thrown down by nature. Goldsworthy’sWall, which is also structurally similar and barely distinguishable like a camouflaged creature echoes Long’s perfect balance of human craft and the forces of nature. Stones, boulders and pebbles may randomly fall, but there is nothing random in how they lie; gravity assists balance, as the forces of nature prevail.

As well as works from its permanent collection, the sculpture park holds major loan exhibitions. A recent Mark di Suvero show, in keeping with all their exhibitions, illustrated clearly how the land and sculptures complement each other. Di Suvero’s sculptures incorporate the machinery that worked and shaped the land they sit on, merging nature and machine. His beefy steel beams and hulking scrap metal parts, looming volumes activating space, remind us that gravity is modern sculpture’s most vitalizing force. Di Suvero’s pieces strike me from some angles as aggressive, uncompromising, predatory and from others whimsical. As steel thrusts skywards piercing space, industrial form meets the creatures of dream and myth in elegant, often unsettling, balance.

Storm King and its sculptures change with the seasons. Of the five di Suveros in Storm King’s permanent collection, some appear to me to be at their enigmatic best in a winter setting. His Mother Peace, a searing red sentinel exerts an even more commanding presence when framed against a vivid blue sky and stark white snow. A personal favourite is the dynamically articulated, Pyramidian, which stands proud above the landscape, framed and embraced by it. At times it can be seen as threatening with its sword-like dangling horizontal beam at others as a benign, stick-like form, perfectly choreographed and assimilated amongst the surrounding trees and branches.

Storm King’s 2014 special exhibition was Zhang Huan: Evoking Tradition, which presented more than 15 works by the internationally celebrated artist. Zhang’s shift from time-based performance to painting and sculpture is attributed by the Center’s Director and Curator David R. Collens to the artist’s return to China after eight years of living in New York, which revitalized his interest in the traditions of his native China.

‘The majestic Three Legged Buddha, a large hammered copper sculpture was the catalyst for the exhibition’ says Collens, adding that this particular outdoor series, which includes five large-scale related sculptures installed near the Three Legged Buddha was inspired by the artist’s travels in Tibet. Collens explains, ‘He encountered fragments of Buddhist statuary destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. From Tibetan markets and other locations across Southeast Asia, Zhang assembled a collection of fragments— feet, legs, arms, fingers—of small-scale bronze Buddha figures which he turned into monumental sculptures.’

Works I particularly enjoyed were Peace, a 20’ tall bronze sculpture comprising a bell with a gold-leaf life-size replica of the artist’s body dangling from its centre. This reflects the significance of bells in Chinese temples, which are often set in the mountains making Storm King the perfect location. Zhang Huan’s sculptures seem to me to have a poignant duality of expression. On one hand they speak of the Buddhist philosophy of peace and light and on the other, a diametrically opposed subtext. In Peace Zhang’s golden body seems at once a temple bell and a gallows.

Describing a new work by Zhang Huan – on view for the first time – Collens reveals, ‘As a practising Buddhist, Zhang Huan has a particular interest in traditional Chinese artistry… Milly’s Temple is a recent example of the artist incorporating wooden elements from a traditional Chinese temple, a street gateway for farmers in Shanxi Province in China created during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) to create a sculpture. The temple is intended to demonstrate Zhang’s solidarity with villagers in rural China. Zhang has replaced the gateway’s original tile roof with a wood structure framework.’In a similar way to Peace No.2 this new work is both formally and spiritually attuned to its Storm King environment. The wood of the temple answers its surroundings of woodland while its structure allows light to penetrate, creating shadows across it in counter-rhythm to its form. In this exhibition, which focuses on Zhang’s interest in Chinese traditional culture and Buddhism, this can be seen as symbolising the ‘Divine Light’ of a cosmic, God-like Buddha who resides within all humans as ‘Light’.

Other notable works in the series include, Head from Buddha Foot, stunningly crafted in sheets of hammered copper fused together to resemble damaged skin, it shows a severed leg with a much smaller head overhung by a massive foot, alluding to the power of might over mind. While Long Island Buddha is the head of a Buddha statue, decapitated, felled, which seems also, through the serene features and harbouring woodland, to convey eternal bliss. These works combine intense elegance with a darker subtext.

But the crowning glory was Three Legged Buddha, part of Storm King’s permanent collection. I particularly liked a maquette for the Three Legged Buddha, set against a drawing Zhang made for it. There is something powerfully expressive in the arched back human figure; it can be exuberant as in a Rodin or Matisse sculpture or, as in this piece, grotesque. 

Three-Legged Buddha for me is a story of violation told in form; a back-bent, grotesque monstrosity crushing its own head into the ground. At 28’ tall and weighing 12 tons, the sculpture squats on its tree-trunk legs in a contorted image of the Buddha. This work penetrates space with the force of a meteor, reflecting the brutality that inspired it. Art is destroyed by such regimes, because it stems from that which they are seeking to break, but spirit endures as this work testifies. There is the suggestion in this particular setting of spirit and nature prevailing over man’s base instincts. The form itself is dwarfed by the landscape, and while forcefully invading space, Three-Legged Buddha allows space to penetrate, framing two dimensional ‘views’ of Schunemunk’s vistas like a gateway to any other temple. This sculpture was originally created for London’s Royal Academy which, as the piece towered above the Annenberg Courtyard in 2007, credited the artist as ‘one of the most notable artists working in China today’. Now displayed in the appropriate setting of the Storm King landscape this is a deeply affecting work.

A big surprise is that Storm King’s landscape is in a state of flux, responding to the art works as they respond to it. The rolling hills and fields may look natural, but in fact this landscape has been subtly moulded to create the perfect setting for each work. Site-specific works have also meant changes; it’s a case of the sculptures answering the land, the land being sculpted to answer them.

Main image: View of Storm King landscape with Andy Goldsworthy’s The Wall that went for a Walk (photo: courtesy of Storm King Art Center)

Storm King Art Center

Aurora Corio