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.

Its nearest competitor is Laumeier Sculpture Park, in St. Louis, Missouri (open daily year-round; call 314-821-1209 for more information). Whereas the almost 100 acres of its grounds are carefully maintained by the county parks department, the sixty-five or so sculptures on view are in the charge of a sometimes financially hard-pressed foundation, with the result that not all of them are cared for as well as they should be. Nonetheless, monumental sculptures by leading artists of the post[not equal]Second World War period make a visit to Laumeier an exciting experience.

The park contains both site-specific sculptures and works brought from elsewhereãworks made, as it were, on spec. This allows a visitor to compare these two ways of making sculpture, a topic much discussed in the world of art. Among my favorite works here are a refreshing George Rickey that moves like a whirligig in the lightest breeze, Beverly Pepper's first site-specific amphitheatrical earthwork sculpture, and major pieces by Di Suvero and Liberman.

Back on the East Coast a particularly challenging outdoor environment is Socrates Sculpture Park, on an abandoned industrial site of four and a half acres bordering the East River in Long Island City, New York (open daily year-round; call 718-956-1819 for more information). The rough, casually landscaped grounds of Socrates Park contrast dramatically with the glamorous skyline of Manhattan's Upper East Side, across the water. Founded by Mark di Suvero, who remains the guiding spirit of the place, the park shows work by rising younger sculptors and better-established ones. Every six months a new installation takes place, consisting of ten to twenty recent works by a variety of artists, many of whom complete their pieces on site. For a Manhattan museum or gallery visitor Socrates is only a short taxi ride across the Queensboro Bridge.

Nearby is the Noguchi Garden Museum (open Wednesday through Sunday from April through October; call 718-204-7088 for more information), dedicated exclusively to the work of the late Isamu Noguchi. Born of an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi in his life and his art blended the two cultures. His partly roughhewn, partly highly polished stone sculpture is clearly influenced by Japanese traditions, as are the now almost ubiquitous Akari lamps that he designed. At the same time, his vision has a decidedly American scale. The Noguchi Garden Museum is an ideal environment in which to see the artist's work in all its phases, spanning a career of some sixty years. The name Garden Museum is apt, in that an indoor museum, a warehouse for his sculpture which Noguchi bought, across the street from his studio and workshop, is combined with a walled garden designed by Noguchi himself for the display of his outdoor work.

There are two spaces besides Socrates Park that show constantly changing displays of newly made sculpture. The better-known one is Grounds For Sculpture, in Hamilton, New Jersey, not far from Princeton (open Friday through Sunday, and by appointment Tuesday through Thursday, year-round; call 609-586-0616 for more information). Its twenty-two acres have been carefully landscaped to provide a setting for rotating exhibitions of new work, primarily by emerging artists. Near Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the Shidoni Gallery and Sculpture Park (open daily year-round; call 505-988-8001 for more information). Only eight acres in size, it presents sculpture made at the Shidoni foundry work that ranges from good to merely ambitious to outright kitsch. However, a visit can include a tour of the foundry itself and the always exciting spectacle of seeing sculpture in progress.

For all the corporate art sponsorship and collecting that was so widely discussed in the 1980s, not many companies involved themselves with sculpture in a major way. One that did was the company that makes Pepsi-Cola. Its PepsiCo sculpture gardens are located in suburban Purchase, New York, on 168 well-tended wooded acres (open daily year-round; call 914-253-2000 for more information). This is the site of the company's headquarters as well as of some forty sculptures by Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Henri Laurens, Arnaldo Pomodoro, and David Smith, among other artists who were fashionable at the time the sculptures were being acquired. (Little has been added in recent years, which have seen increasingly sharp questioning by Wall Street of this type of corporate expenditure.) One of my favorites here is a George Segal in which three apparently plaster-cast people are portrayed sitting on an ordinary garden bench. Their ambiguous, almost eerie presence adds a wonderful sense of mystery to the entire setting. PepsiCo also boasts a particularly handsome Henry Moore, Double Oval. Another fine work is a Surrealist family group by Max Ernst, which radiates magic in its wooded setting.

Again, a sculpture park tends to be the result of the vision of one man or woman--even when a spouse[pi]s name has been added to the name of the institution for reasons of sentiment or courtesy. This individual quality is particularly evident at Kykuit Gardens, near Tarrytown, New York (open daily except Tuesday from April through October; call 914-631-9491 for more information). Formerly the country home of Nelson Rockefeller, the spectacularly sited house and gardens--the estate's old Dutch name means "Lookout"--are now open as a museum. A visit to the house, which is barely changed since Rockefeller's day, can make one feel almost as if one had met the collector in person. The same feeling arises from a tour of the seventy-odd sculptures, which are sensitively placed in the formal plantings surrounding the residence. The collection exemplifies the modern sculpture that fired the enthusiasm of Rockefeller's generation: works by Aristide Maillol, Jean Arp, Giacometti, Picasso, and Moore, among others--artists who began by building on Rodin's heritage and went on to absorb and reflect the discoveries of Cubism and the impact of the Surrealist vision. At the time Rockefeller acquired the works, his choices were seen as highly adventurous, if not radical, by the staid world in which he lived. Now these sculptures are recognized as undisputed classics.

I must mention three other worthwhile places to see sculpture. First, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Philip Berman continues to collect on a very grand scale. The town's Lehigh Valley Hospital boasts the Philip and Muriel Berman Sculpture Park (open daily year-round; call 610-402-2273 for more information). Allentown's extensive park system is peppered with contemporary sculpture courtesy of the Bermans, and so is the campus of Muhlenberg College. All the works were acquired when the sculptors were still young, emerging artists, although by now many, including Mark di Suvero, Jon Isherwood, and Peter Hide, have achieved international reputations.

The Bradley Sculpture Garden, in Milwaukee (open daily year-round by appointment; call 414-276-68 40 for more information), is the creation of the late Margaret Bradley. She was an avid and early collector of modern art, gifted with a remarkable eye. Her world-class painting collection is today the core and the pride of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Bradley adapted as her home an old farmhouse on the northern outskirts of the cityãa place of wide-open fields in a plain that glaciers flattened during the last Ice Age. She added ponds and hill-like rises, and brought works by the progressive sculptors of her time, including Archipenko, Max Bill, Sorel Etrog, Barbara Hepworth, Isamu Noguchi, and George Sugarman, to make a sculpture park of singular charm and highly personal appeal.

Finally, opening to the public later this month is Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, in southern Ohio, near the small city of Hamilton, in the environs of Cincinnati (the park will be open daily except Monday year-round; call 513-868-8336 for more information). In this case the imaginative, committed enthusiast is Harry Wilks. The 250 acres here, in the midst of rolling hills, are surely the most beautiful natural setting of any art park in the country. Pyramid Hill is worth watching for.

(Basic information about these and many other sculpture parks and gardens can be found in a directory published by Sculpture magazine. Copies are available for $10.00; to order one call 202-785-1144.)

To get the most out of a visit to a sculpture park, it is particularly helpful to bring along a camera, even if the camera contains no film. For most of us, the eye is a very lazy organ, and we need to give it a push to make it really see. The best way to do this is to look with a single, Cyclops' camera eye and pretend to photograph--or actually photograph. With a camera we are driven to find the one view of a given sculpture that summarizes the entire work--the one out of the 360 degrees of views encircling the sculpture, not to mention the innumerable views that raising or lowering the camera can add. A little bit to the left, a bit more profile, just a little higher--and suddenly the studious eye, forced to make judgments, begins to discover complexities and aspects of a sculpture that the casually glancing, untrained eye will never see.

Another useful bit of advice is always to make a point of looking at the back of figurative sculpture, especially the backs of human figures and torsos. Remarkably often the backs are sculpturally more satisfying and more beautiful than the fronts. Our entire culture is frontally oriented--in architecture, in automobiles, in clothing, and, indeed, in our bodies. Backs are thus all too often overlooked in art. Over the years I have installed a good many Greek and Roman marble torsos. When they were installed front forward, very few visitors ever bothered to look at the usually more beautiful backs. When the torsos were turned so that their backs faced out, visitor after visitor would admire them as they were presented and then, inevitably, walk around to satisfy curiosity by peeking at the front!

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; Abloom with Art; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 32-35.