Pyramidium, the massive, 65-foot sculpture, begins to take on its final shape, towering over a valley at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York. Mark di Suvero and his trusted two-man crew have just attached a second horizontal I-beam to a central inner circle so that the two beams form an inverted T near the top of a metal pyramid. Created from four steel beams, Pyramidium points to earth and sky, west and east, north and south—the six Chinese directions. Its geometric lines and moving center form a Zen koan: more transparent than the ancient pyramids yet just as secretive. A hawk soars overhead. A billow of small birds floats onto the mown field to ferret seeds: another perfect day at Storm King.
During the following weeks, in August’s steamy, pre-hurricane weather, di Suvero completes the 10-year cycle of building Pyramidium (1998). “Storm King is the most visible sculpture park in the United States. There’s nothing like it: the scale, the history,” di Suvero says. He’s been to Denmark’s Louisiana, and praises the Netherlands’ Kröller-Müeller, which owns a di Suvero from the mid-’70s, but the art there is “not built on this scale.” Monumental art, picture-perfect vistas, and sculpted, engineered landscapes distinguish Storm King. In this giant playland, ideas and nature exchange energies.
Storm King’s unique character can be attributed to two features, assets belonging to it alone: 500 acres of land and H. Peter Stern, president and chairman of the board. Stern’s powerful board includes former National Gallery of Art director J. Carter Brown, and his distinguished advisors include former Cornell University H. F. Johnson Museum director Thomas W. Leavitt. Founded in 1960 by Stern and Ralph E. (“Ted”) Ogden, business partners at the Star Expansion Company, Storm King’s original mission was to feature New York’s Hudson Valley painters. However, Stern explains, “We happened to appear on the scene as these large-scale sculptures emerged…Museums did not have room for them. We had the space and the open-mindedness. Neither Ted Ogden nor I had any preconceived notions about collecting. My personal collecting specialty is Turkish and Indian art.”
At the same time that he was thinking about art, Stern was conscious of how large sculpture could fit into the landscape: “We want sculpture that needs this kind of environment, an environment that offers something quite different from an urban one.” At the time of the purchase, the original 200-acre park was in bad shape. Two million cubic yards of gravel had been removed for the New York State thruway. Stern and Ogden called in their own personal landscape architect, Bill Rutherford, to orchestrate Storm King’s transformation. “He does not want his artistic signature to be recognized,” Stern observes. “He wants the landscape to look as if God, not he, had created it.”
Efforts to engineer grand, yet natural, vistas and walking paths and to match each sculpture to a chosen site are ongoing. Roads, parking lots, underground drainage, and a planned bus service are designed to be as invisible as possible from most sight lines. The art has minimal labels, and there is no signage to obstruct the view or to remind the visitor of caged and labeled museum objects. Instead, a color-coded map leads visitors along a marked path to areas labeled alphabetically; each area is named for its major artist. Works by more than 86 artists, several of whom are represented by more than one sculpture, are clustered in 10 areas. The art park (open annually between April 1 and November 15) hosts about 47,000 visitors each season and has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million. Director David R. Collens heads its small staff.
Storm King is a living sculpture. In an eastern field, across from di Suvero’s giant steel creations, a farmer mows circular rows of alfalfa and begins baling it into big rolls. On the same field, David von Schlegell’s three square aluminum frames on raised steel legs cast perfect square shadows that follow the sun. At the south end, Robert Grosvenor’s low, black Cor-Ten steel form hovers like a giant flattened top hat. Nearby and close to the entrance, a couple sensuously circles Arch (1975), one of Alexander Calder’s last stabiles.
The south end of the grounds features works by Richard Serra and Andy Goldsworthy, which are reached by walking down a grand maple-lined avenue planted in the 1960s. Goldsworthy’s The Wall That Went For a Walk, the most recent commission at Storm King, is a 2,278-foot wall, built from freestanding local stones by the artist and his Scottish wallers. The wall curves around trees as it meanders towards a pond, then continues on the other side. As it dialogues with the hilly landscape and stolid trees, the wall invites comparison with the straight stone walls further up the hill that were built by the earliest settlers in the region. The wall also symbolizes the entire Storm King enterprise of intertwining art and nature.
Richard Serra’s Schunnemunk Fork also brings out the elements of its site. Four weathering steel plates, each 2.5 inches thick, 8 feet high, and 34 to 54 feet long, are half-submerged to form triangles in the earth that mark 8-foot declines in the elevation in the field. The steel plates mark their relations to each other, to their site, and to the facing Schunnemunk and Storm King mountains. As they contrast with the pale butterflies and dragonflies hovering around the surrounding Queen Anne’s lace, the sun casts dramatic shadows, doubling the images of the plates in the high grass.
The sculptures in Storm King’s collection are carefully sited. Kenneth Snelson’s Free Ride Home seems to free-float above a central hillside as Grace Knowlton’s large concrete Spheres nest against the clefts and curves of the same slope. In the Normandy-style indoor exhibition space, Louise Bourgeois’s Number Seventy-two is a mysterious and intimate grouping of marble cylinders notable for its delicate hues and veins.
The nearby hilltop features a cluster of David Smith’s sculptures (this year Storm King features the last phase of the three-year exhibition “The Fields of David Smith”). The humanism, humor, and human scale of these welded metal constructions provide physical contrasts with the giant-sized, rough-cut wooden vessel For Paul by Ursula von Rydingsvard that stands at the steep south side of the hill and with di Suvero’s seven steel constructions, many brightly painted and with moving parts, in a field below. On a hillock to the north, Isamu Noguchi’s stone Momo Taro beckons with the presence and majesty of rounded stones made for sitting, climbing, and contemplation. Siah Armajani’s Gazebo for Two Anarchists and Alice Aycock’s Threefold Manifestation II are both architectural constructions that draw visitors to their sites.
Storm King’s ambitious program of integrating nature and art includes long-range plans for re-structuring selected sites; one program in conjunction with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center based in Austin, Texas, calls for replanting 80 acres with grasslands and wildflowers. “In addition to being a sculpture park, we are a nature conservancy,” Stern says. “Star Expansion Company, owned by Ted Ogden and myself, acquired and donated over 2,300 acres of Schunnemunk Mountain.”
“We’ve had every advantage here,” Stern observes. “We began with no preconceived plans and we have been listening to inner voices to discover what will work. Akin to marriage, there has been pleasure and suffering along the way.” Its rural location 55 miles north of Manhattan near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the city of Newburgh, lends to Storm King’s legend and legacy: a cultivated American wilderness whose art challenges those who come to see.
Jan Garden Castro is the author of The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe.