Storm King at Fifty
The permanent collection + anniversary installations

FOUNDED BY TWO HARDWARE MANUFACTURERS, Storm King Art Center is an exquisite monument to post-industrial America.

In 1958, Ralph Ogden, owner of the Star Expansion Company—maker of expansion bolts, drilling devices, and masonry fasteners—bought a 180-acre estate in Mountainville, NY. It came with a Normandy-style chateau built on a high tableland overlooking the valley between Schunnemunk and Storm King Mountains. This was the nucleus of the Center, opened by Ogden with his business partner and son-in-law, H. Peter Stern, in 1960.

That year, like the Center itself, was less a marker for the beginning of the Sixties than the culmination of the Fifties. Contrary to popular mythology, the Fifties was a decade of great innovation born of postwar confidence and widening prosperity. A fertile time in dance, music and visual art, it was the perfect moment to commemorate American artistic triumphs. The original intention was to establish a school and museum  of Hudson Valley painters. But the founders’ attention soon shifted toward a sculpture park that would integrate art into the landscape.

Mark di Suvero, al di la

In 1967, Ogden went to David Smith’s home in Bolton’s Landing for an auction of the sculptor’s estate. In a blink, he purchased 13 Smith sculptures, the core of Storm King’s collection. Today they cluster at the base of a high earthen rise crafted to Noguchi’s specifications for his granite masterwork Momo Taro.

After Ogden’s death in 1974, Stern began acquiring the large-scale sculpture that now dominates the landscape. At present, the Center occupies 500 acres. Once-productive farmland and surrounding parcels have been incrementally annexed, bulldozed and replanted, by landscape architect William Rutherford, into a backdrop for monumental works and site-specific installations.

The Hudson Highland setting is glorious. Visitors hike through wooded groves, along mowed or pebbled trails, past islands of alfalfa, oats and buckweed, and over sloping fields covered with native grasses, clovers and wild flowers. The landscape is so stunning that first-time visitors are likely to experience the sculpture as a lesser splendor than the Appalachian chain. There is a chance of leaving the Center more excited by the culture of prairie dropseed and weeping eucalyptus than the museum culture at the heart of things.

At Storm King, nature bends to the needs of art. Some, not all, of the art reciprocates. The answering tone is set by a reclining arabesque that fulfills Henry Moore’s conviction that there are “universal shapes to which everyone is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond.”

These are the volumes, arcs, crooks and curls of nature. We attend most deeply to shapes that remind us of primal things— bones, rocks, tree limbs—and the sinuosities of the human form. Artworks in the organic mode are the most successful here. Among them, is Ursula Von Rydingsvard’s towering Luba. Made of blocks of cedar, it even smells like the remnant of primeval forest that it evokes. Daniel Petit’s Kiss places two monumental blocks of granite leaning toward each other with a tenderness that belies their tonnage.

Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Wall

More than 100 works, by some of the world’s best known sculptors, nestle into the hollows of the landscape:  Alice Aycock, Anthony Caro, Claes Oldenburg, Louise Nevelson, Richard Serra, Isaac Witkin, Dorothy Dehner, Menashe Kadishman, Lee Tribe, among others. In the midst of this wealth of names, stands an anonymous stone reproduction of an Easter Island head. Even a copy sends a frisson of recognition, a reminder of sculpture’s sacral origins. Tucked along a wooded trail, the head overlooks bronzes by Kenneth Capps and Sorel Etrog, Robert Murray’s painted aluminum stabile, and a gathering of pieces that represent the dominant sculptural vocabulary of the 1960s and 1970s.

Several pieces come closer to engineering projects than traditional concepts of sculpture. Kenneth Snelson’s self-supporting, latticework structure, Free Ride Home, is an exercise in tension and compression to delight the ghost of Buckminster Fuller. George Cutts’ Sea Change omits mass for a motor-driven duet between two curved stainless steel poles. It stands in magical contrast to Mark di Suvero’s linear constructions which are oddly disheartening in this context.

The load-bearing capacity of di Suvero’s I-beams turns the mind’s eye back to the era of manufacturing clout that underwrote Storm King at its beginning. The only force Suvero’s vacant arrangements now support is the weight of a once-exhuberant aestheticism that is as past its prime as Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s four Sarcophagi in Glass Houses reinforces a corresponding regret over the loss of hardier times. Old industrial engines are laid out in glass coffins like Snow White. The culture that produced and used them has eaten the poisoned apple. No prince appears to awaken slumbering turbines.

Andy Goldsworthy’s Storm King Wall snakes in, out and around the trees. But the pretension of it gets the better of its rough beauty. Traditional drywall is an ancient building method fallen into disuse because of the heavy labor of cutting stones to fit securely together without a cement bond. It was more than a little precious to import Scottish masons to do the job. Outside the gates of Storm King, along country roads up and down the East Coast, are miles of drywall marking old fields and property lines. The arthood of Goldsworthy’s meandering sample is measured by its aimlessness. And those six

Maya Lin, Wavefield

Similar ostentation afflicts Maya Lin’s 11-acre Wavefield, a tour-de-force of earth-sculpting. Parallel rows of undulating mounds are meant to mimic the rolling swell of waves. What they achieve is a stylized echo of the hills around them. Aerial photos of the project are far more compelling than on-the-ground experience. Viewed on foot, the field gives the impression of a whimsical golf course.

Calder’s The Arch (1975), a black-painted steel structure, looms near the park’s north gate. Fifty six feet high, it is an imposing, almost fearsome sight, that suggests—unCalderlike—some kind of redoubt, all bulk and surface gloom. By contrast, his slim steel cutouts that dot the slope of Museum Hill, are characteristically playful. Seen from a distance, these bright red shapes give the effect of crested cardinals on the grass.

Emilio Greco’s graceful bronze Large Bather, an early acquisition, is the single figurative sculpture in sight. It stands near five soaring Ionic columns, remains of the dismantled 19th century estate that provided the stones for the Center’s chateau. The view from the columns, portal to the panorama beyond, is reason enough to visit.


“Israel Hershberg: From Afar” at Marlborough Chelsea (545 W. 25th Street, 212-925-6190).

This essay appeared first in CityArts, July 15, 2010.

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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