Abloom with Art

Works by renowned modern sculptors can be viewedoutdoors in the New York area--and across America

There is an anecdote about a young collector who visited Mark Rothko in his studio in the early 1950s, a time when easel-scale painting dominated the art market. Rothko's canvases, as yet modestly priced but seven to eight or more feet tall, appeared forbiddingly large for any then-conceivable domestic setting. "Where are people going to hang your paintings?" the collector asked, and the artist replied, "People just haven't built the houses yet for my paintings." Rothko of course proved to be right. Art-lovers' houses were adapted to accommodate the large-scale paintings of the Abstract Expressionists and subsequent schools. So, too, the development of very large new sculpture has led to the creation of sculpture parks all over the United States, Europe, and Japan.

The grandest and most important American sculpture park to date is the Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, New York, approximately an hour and a half north of New York City. On more than 400 acres of open, rolling meadows some 120 sculptures are installed. These works, by noted sculptors including Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Alexander Liberman, Richard Serra, and Kenneth Snelson, range in scale from that of the human figure to towering works three or four stories high.

The pride of the collection is a glorious group of thirteen works by David Smith, who is widely considered the most important American sculptor of the twentieth century. Storm King's Smith sculptures--some in rusted steel and others in stainless, many incorporating found objects such as everyday tools and utensils, others composed of hard-edged slabs of burnished metal--evoke human proportions on a heroic scale. The largest group of Smith's work anywhere outdoors, they make Storm King an obligatory stop for anyone seriously interested in the sculpture of our time.

Photographs of sculpture in magazines and museum publications, it seems, are invariably shot on cloudless summer days when all of nature smiles. Many years of working with sculpture in outdoor settings have led me to the realization that it is in the winter, and especially on overcast days, that sculpture makes its greatest contribution, when nature sleeps and trees stand bare and only sculpture blooms. It is also only in the out-of-doors that sculpture can be seen in the full range of changing light: with the sun shining from the east in the morning and from the west in the afternoon, high in the summer and slanting low in the winter. On sunny days there are sharp shadows, which become soft contours and shading when clouds gather. Sculpture indoors, however well-lit, is necessarily static. Only under an open sky can sculpture come to life in all its richly varied aspects.

The taste for sculpture out of doors goes far back in history. One of the earliest recorded sculpture parks is the elaborate garden that the Roman Emperor Tiberius created on the island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples. When Tiberius retired there, in A.D. 27, he built a large palace on the highest promontory, decorating the surrounding garden with marble and bronze statuary. Looking at the ruins that remain, one can only imagine what this idyllic place must have looked like, carefully planted and tended and filled with art. As was usual at the time, the figures surely represented personages from classical mythology.

The classical taste for garden statuary was revived, along with much else of the Roman and Greek past, during the Renaissance. Beginning in Italy in the fifteenth century, the fashion for formal gardens punctuated with statuary of mythological figures spread across Europe. It reached a climax in the French royal gardens of Versailles, which in turn were imitated in the eighteenth century by many smaller royal residences all over Europe. With the growth of cities and the rise of the middle classes in the nineteenth century, similar statuary began to invade the new urban public parks, of which Central Park, in New York, is an outstanding example. Central Park is of course not primarily a sculpture park but rather a place that uses art to enhance its many functions.

Only in our own century has the idea developed of a park or garden whose primary focus is the display of contemporary sculpture. At the same time, certain changes in the nature of sculpture have come about, in two stages. The first began when Picasso and Julio Gonzalez in the early decades of the century adopted materials previously not considered admissible for the making of art--scraps and found objects--which in their hands were transformed. The second change took place after the Second World War: the metamorphosis of sculpture as statuary into sculpture as pure form, often leaving behind not only human and animal figuration but also the correspondingly modest scale that had prevailed until then. Pioneers in developing new formal vocabularies for sculpture included Calder, Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Di Suvero, Serra, Beverly Pepper, Liberman, and George Rickey in the United States, Henry Moore and Anthony Caro in England, and Bernar Venet in France. Materials previously neglected, in particular structural and industrial steel, attracted their attention and made possible the creation of very large sculpture for the outdoors. Eventually the simple fact of their existence led people who were passionate about art to want to place these powerful new works in appropriate settings, and stimulated a happy profusion of parks dedicated to the display of sculpture.

Like every sculpture park I know of, Storm King (open daily April 1 to November 15; call 914-534-3115 for more information) is the product of a highly personal, individual vision. Ralph Ogden, who died in 1974, was a local industrialist who bought the property in order to found a museum; the house there has become the central museum structure. Together with his son-in-law H. Peter Stern, who now heads Storm King, Ogden endowed the estate with a collection that became important with the acquisition of the thirteen David Smith sculptures. In addition to its very impressive permanent collection, Storm King has to date featured annual exhibitions that occupy the galleries in the house along with a sizable part of the carefully groomed grounds. In its scale and ambition, in the quality and quantity of works shown, in the wide and imaginative reach of its exhibitions, Storm King remains unique in the world.

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