Tours of the Oliver Ranch are scheduled for late afternoon. Driving north from San Francisco after lunch gets you there just as the property’s undulating hills are bathed in the rays of the setting sun, and the golden beauty of the land becomes impossible to ignore. When I visited this spring, the hills were silky with oatgrass; lichen-encrusted oaks unfolded a black filigree screen overhead against the light. Like the rest of the experience, the 1.5-mile path that leads from one installation to the next had been designed to heighten the artworks’ integration with the land.
Steve and Nancy Oliver started collecting art in the 1970s. It was a time when many artists were seeking ways to reject commodity purveyor status, making works that were unsaleable because they were minimally object-oriented, or monumental and remote. By the time that the Olivers commissioned their first site-specific piece, from Judith Shea (Shepherd’s Muse, 1985–88), they were turned off by the commodification that had accelerated as the contemporary art market heated up in the 1980s, setting annual auction records and turning many collectors into de facto dealers.
In 1981, they had purchased a 100-acre property in the Russian River Valley. The initial plan had been to use the acreage to house the sheep that the family was raising at the time; the Olivers eventually decided to use it to sustain a novel approach to collecting that would provide non-commercial ways of interacting with art and artists. They began inviting artists to the ranch to realize site-specific artworks that would be both physically determined and conceptually inspired by context. “Nancy said, ‘We’ve got a lot of land here; we should just invite an artist to come out and build something in the land—so that if it’s moved, it’s destroyed,’” Steve Oliver explained. “And I thought, ‘That’s a great idea. We’ll build it, and it’ll be somehow laid out and attached to the land so you can’t move it.’ It ceases to be a commodity.”
Oliver Ranch is one of the few American sculpture parks in which the works have all been conceived explicitly on and for the site—relationship to land being the one imposed constraint. The Olivers’ approach to commissions involves working intensively with artists and asking them to commit to a multi-season study of the land as part of the process. Sculptures and installation pieces activate the space around them and vice versa, in a way that reflects that deliberation.
Landscape frames the art, playing a major role. Topography starts shaping the experience of Richard Serra’s Snake Eyes and Boxcars (1990–93) before viewers even become aware it’s happening. The approach has visitors puffing as they labor up a rise. At the top, the view opens with the force of a thunderclap; the horizon drops away as, winded, you come face to face with the first of Serra’s monoliths. In the case of Mirosław Bałka’s 43x30x2, 43x30x2, 1554x688x10 (1995–96), the work remains invisible until you reach a promontory, move from light into shade, and find something unexpected at your feet: an apparition in a grove, a pale slab of concrete watered by thin internal streams that replicates the dimensions of the artist’s childhood home.
“When we first bought the property we thought, ‘Gee, too bad it isn’t like Storm King—300 acres of flat land,’” Oliver said. “Then later I realized that the place’s terrain is its salvation.” Undulating hills make it possible for virtually all of the works installed at the ranch to be experienced independently. “There’s only one work that can be seen from any other work, and that’s Ann Hamilton’s tower (2003–07), just because it’s an eight-story building.”
The hilly terrain has also facilitated the installation of works involving sound. At intervals, the six subterranean Bose Acoustic Wave Cannons associated with Bill Fontana’s Earth Tones (1992) emit low-frequency sounds recorded at underwater sites around the world. The soundtrack to Terry Allen’s humanature (1991–92), an R-rated sally on the inevitability of John Berger’s dictum “men act, women appear,” features a different aural dislocation: a sitcom couple arguing in gibberish to the strains of a camp “Moon River.” “Fortunately,” Oliver remarked, “there’s been enough distance so one work doesn’t interfere with another.”
California artist Doug Hall’s Wittgenstein’s Garden (2018) is the 19th site-specific work commissioned by the Olivers, and the third involving sound. “I started collecting Doug Hall’s works 30 years ago, probably,” Oliver explained. “The original three or four were front pages of newspapers that he had drawn or painted on, so there’s been an evolution. This piece has sound associated with it: a text written by Ludwig Wittgenstein and recorded by the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus in whispers. The sound is distributed among 35 loudspeakers in a beautiful seating area.”
One of the pleasures of this collection is getting to see monumental works of outdoor sculpture by artists who are not necessarily the usual Land Art suspects. The Olivers commission artists whose work excites them, even when said artists have no record of completing outdoor commissions. That was the case with Ann Hamilton, who is best known for her ephemeral installations. Her tower opens to the sky at the top, with a midnight blue reflecting pool at the bottom—an eight-story-high concrete cylinder for sound. When the structure functions as a performance space, performers stand along one of the dual staircases that wind around the open central core, with audience members facing them, sound reverberating in the space between. The larynx-like structure, a “vocal cord for the ranch” in Hamilton’s assessment, remains one of only a few permanent pieces she has done.
As the owner of a company specializing in construction and real estate development, Steve Oliver has been able to go to uncommon lengths to realize artists’ visions. He gives the impression of relishing what many patrons would find to be insuperable logistical difficulties. The Olivers share an enthusiasm for facilitating the creative process in ways that encompass and go beyond logistics. “Collaborating with the artists is what’s made the most fun,” Steve Oliver told me. “Being in the construction business, we deal with architects and creative people every day. But artists just problem-solve differently.” He had an example ready.
“Roger Berry, who was one of the first artists to work out here, had a site problem. He said, ‘This is the site I would like to use, but the land is three or four feet too high on one side.’ I said, ‘Lemme think about it.’ I did the calculations and figured out that I had to cut about 60 by 100 feet, take four feet of dirt out. I said, ‘OK, I’m willing to do it, but I want you to be sure it’s the right decision, because it’s gonna cost $35,000 or $40,000. But if that will make the site perfect for you, that’s what I want.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Well, you told me the site was three or four feet too high. Now I gotta move 6,000 yards of dirt and find a place to put it.’ And he said, ‘Oh no, no. Just move the path six or eight feet up the hill.’ And I did that. It cost me $280. I realized that Berry was worried about the perception of the site as you approached it, not the site itself. So, that’s how artists problem-solve. It isn’t always cost effective, though,” the collector acknowledged. “Sometimes I’ve had to dig in my pocket. Sometimes creative solutions are heroic.”
On walking tours of the ranch, which Steve Oliver led exclusively for many years, he comes across as part plainspoken job site philosopher (“I’m in the construction business, we dig holes in the ground”) and part charismatic Land Art showman, with an occasional hint of Willy Wonka about his delivery (“We don’t restrict any artist for size, or scale, or even budget, I’m embarrassed to say”). His enthusiasm for the art is evident.
Oliver introduces himself to visitors by saying, “I own a construction company,” and he presents his patronage as an extension of that identity. Cherished commonalities include, certainly, the brute logic of wrangling base materials—but also the comradeship of labor, in which many hands come together to realize a shared intention larger than the sum of its parts. Oliver regards social praxis as a crucial element of process. Art, he said, “has been transformational for our company. We’re in the construction business; we’re not highly tech-oriented. We dig holes and fill them with concrete, like we did 100 years ago. The three-way discussions that take place between employees, who are blue-collar workers, the artists, and myself are some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had in my life…I think our people are better problem-solvers now because of working with artists. I think we are more creative because of that.”
Several artworks on the ranch tour connect explicitly with industrial processes and the building trades. The 12 cubic forms in Serra’s installation were made in an industrial forge, via a process in which a steel ingot is heated to 2,300 degrees and smashed with a 145-ton hammer until the glowing gel acquires a solid shape. The squat, hyper-dense units are so heavy that Oliver had to arrange for all the overpasses on Interstate 5 through Oregon to be reinforced so that the convoy carrying the pieces could travel to the ranch from the Seattle-area foundry where they were made.
The ranch’s award-winning building, which houses visiting artists and was commissioned from San Francisco architect Jim Jennings in 1991 and finished in 2003, is defined by an excavation—a massive pair of concrete walls sunken into the earth. These parallels define two mirror-image artist suites and a courtyard open to the sky that separates them. The atrium view is directed by the arabesques of David Rabinowitch’s reverse relief Carved Systems in Involution (2001). From along the axis, the structuring walls recall trench shoring used to hold open the sides of a construction dig. To enter by descending either narrow stairwell is to sense a sort of primal enchantment: walls are holding back the land so you can step inside.
The nine silvery wedges of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Iggy’s Pride (1990–91) project from a 70-foot concrete wall, one for each of the artist’s parents and their seven children. The sculpture is named for her Ukrainian father, a forced laborer during the war and later a refugee who immigrated with his family to the United States. Impressed by von Rydingsvard’s way with a chainsaw, Oliver brought construction workers on site during the months-long installation process to watch her work with her team of precision cutters, saying, “Watch and learn.” He fondly evokes the diverse, ephemeral community that formed on the ridgeline during the making of this piece: the camaraderie that participants felt and the lasting relationships that were made, how the sculptor Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, who was working as von Rydingsvard’s studio manager at the time, offered an impromptu series of Spanish-language lectures on contemporary art, how the ridgetop audience swelled to 20 or 30 auditors.
Untitled (1998–99), by Bruce Nauman, is the first work that visitors encounter on the tour: the narrow, quarter-mile stairway grips the hillside through a series of mogul-like swells, starting its downhill journey just steps from the Olivers’ front door. The height of the risers, determined by the contours of the slope, ranges from less than half an inch to a barely negotiable 17 inches. Viewed from afar, the work looks like an austere concrete ribbon; experienced by a walker in motion, it comes alive. There are no railings to cordon off the vastness of the green and gold vineyard view, and the fluxing height of the risers keeps you guessing. You need eyes on the ground to navigate these tricky distances; the beautiful view becomes temptation: “You want to look at the view, but you have to be watching your feet instead.” Since the hillside’s drop makes exiting the stairway an unappealing option, viewers move downhill on a continuously adjusting stride, thinking on their feet or risking a fall. Everyone walks in an exaggerated manner, mimicking Nauman’s canonic 1967 performance.
Requests for ranch tours, which began during Steve Oliver’s tenure as president of the board at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1990s, have risen steadily; general audiences thirst for the authentic experience of place that art can provide. The Olivers’ focus on site-specific works now seems prescient. Even the way they have chosen to share their property with the public has been described as a model of site-responsive philanthropy. Ranch tours are made available to benefit nonprofits in viewers’ communities. Visitors must come as part of a group; tours are free, but participants must contribute to a nonprofit arts or social services organization, which determines the minimum contribution.
In 2009, Steve and Nancy Oliver partnered with Community Foundation Sonoma County to create the Oliver Ranch Foundation, assuring that their vision for the ranch goes on. This year, they unveiled a docent program—another milestone, after years in which Steve Oliver personally led each of the two-hour walking tours that take place during spring and fall visitor seasons.
Thirty-one years since the completion of his and Nancy’s first commission, Steve Oliver continues to be hands-on. “I’ve been running the company 50 years this December,” he said, “and I’m down to working half time now, which means I’m only working 80 hours a week. Certainly if an artist is at the ranch, I’m there, watching what they do and asking questions. I think that starting the ranch has been the best thing I ever did. At times I have kicked myself for doing it, but then I realize what it has done for my company, and for my family. My children and grandchildren have grown up with these extraordinary artists at the dinner table. Being part of this creative process, even as an observer, has been sort of amazing.”