A visitor rolls down a hill at the Storm King Art Center while his partner films him, leaning into each turn as if the immaculate lawn was Egyptian cotton. He gets up and theatrically throws his chest open to 2,100 vista-sweeping acres of Schunnemunk Mountain State Park that cradle the cascading meadow he stands in. All around him over 100, typically massive, sculptures and installations are framed as an interplay with hillocks and glens, rivers and mountains. The man’s companion shakes her shoulder in laughter, catching a glimpse of his inner five-year-old in his giddy grin.
Journey further into the 500-acre art centre, cloaked in a highly protected environmental corridor of New York’s Hudson Valley, and it seems everyone is wearing a similar expression: a visible fascination at meeting a museum that breaks the mould, where children laugh and play, and families and friends picnic in the shade. A large-scale art centre of international fame, Storm King is dedicated to melding modern art across the natural beauty that graces its carefully curated expanse.
The name Storm King was borrowed from a nearby mountain on the Hudson River, whose cloud-catching crest was considered a harbinger of coming storms by the local community since the 19th century. Ralph “Ted” Ogden and H. Peter Stern purchased the original estate in 1959, creating what was then a humble homage to paintings of the Hudson River School (artists inspired by the region’s landscape), from 1960-61. The estate’s historic home was originally considered the main attraction of the museum, with only a small sculpture garden circling the structure. With the help of landscape artist William A. Rutherford, Sr., the institution’s environmental restoration efforts gradually took over this track of the Hudson Highlands, a meticulous process of tending to and expanding the then damaged terrain to its current breadth.
The depths of the property would only be used as an al fresco canvas for sculptures after Ogden paid a visit to the studio of deceased artist David Smith in 1967. There, he was transfixed by the outdoor arrangement of the sculptor’s abstract works in the Adirondack mountains. Ogden had ambled into the answer of how to adequately pay tribute to the Hudson landscape he valued so, buying 13 of Smith’s works on the spot, now instilled with a vision of how to honour nature’s artistry by accenting it with art that highlighted the region’s agrestal spirit. By the mid-1970s, each acquired sculpture was curated to interact with its viewshed, the custodians stewarding the meandering meadows and thick forests as an art medium throughout the seasons.
With over 100 installations and a 4.8-kilometre-loop that leads to them, it’s imperative to pencil in enough time to peruse Storm King. While the centre’s bicycle rentals are temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, they are typically a faster way for visitors to explore the premises and are expected to be reintroduced in the near future. Storm King often features temporary exhibits and installations, but its permanent collection is a bounty of contemporary art.
George Cutts’ “Sea Change” (1996) is the only motorised sculpture on the property. Picture two silver-hued and slender curved steel poles whose oscillation is orchestrated by underground motorised discs that gently whirl them around in a synchronised dance. The rhythm of their rotations masterfully mimics the sashay of seaweed in the ocean.
Saul Baizerman’s hammered copper relief, “Aphrodite” (C.A. 1940–48), displays a miraculous manifestation of nature’s force within the fluidity of the human form. According to the Storm King archives, Baizerman once commented of his work, “We sense in these pieces, although of human shape, movements of nature in rivers, in sloping mountains, in the flatness of fields…or the turbulence of the sea.” Andy Goldsworthy’s “Storm King Wall”(1997-98)is a masterful example of the British agricultural tradition, a 2,278-foot-long dry stone wall made up of1,579 tons of individually chipped and shaped fieldstone, puzzled together by an elite team of British wallers. The structure (five-feet at its tallest) drifts in and out the trees that mark the forest edge, eventually dipping into a nearby pond, only to emerge on the opposite bank, continuing uphill to Storm King’s western boundary. The project traces the origin of an old farm wall, yet this time its winding structure does not barricade the trees that are thought to have gradually grown to topple the previous and straight structure, instead moving through them harmoniously.
Zhang Huan’s “Three Legged Buddha” (2007) is 28-feet-high, its imposing copper and steel figure weighing over twelve tons. The sculpture’s limbs were inspired by artefacts Zhang saw in Tibet, but the 8-foot-high face, partly sunken into the earth, upon which one of the feet rests, is a self-portrait of the sculpture. Hatchs were crafted for incense to be burnt within the sculpture, which then flows out of the Buddha’s toes and Zhang’s nostrils and eyes.
Eager Instagrammers can often be seen first flocking to Menashe Kadishman’s “Suspended” (1977), where two imposing, three-dimensional weathered steel rectangles interplay so it looks as if one is floating while the other appears balanced upon it. Sitting at the bottom of a glen, the initial vantage points draw you closer to the sculpture; you first see it as the size of your fingernail, but by the time you reach it, this massive steel structure is shading you with its girth as you crane your neck to better guess how the artist pulled it off as a permanent structure.
While landscape plays a formative role in all of the works here, “Storm King Wavefield, “perhaps, best embodies the reclamation aspect of this institution. In what was once an 11-acre gravel pit, Maya Lin created an array of earthworks and grassland rivets, creating a cresting scale of seven waves, each 10 to 15-foot-high.
These staggered out swells spell together a seascape out of the landscape that brings added drama to views of Schunnemunk Mountain and the Hudson Highlands. Walk through the wavefield, and you are enveloped in a seismic wonder in the middle of an expansive meadow.
The beauty of Storm King’s dedicated revitalisation is constant, not only for the sake of the artworks; this year alone the art centre replaced 24 maple trees with black gum trees, which Storm King finds “are better suited to withstand… (the region’s) changing climate and ground conditions.” Even more impressive is their work with dozens of native grasses, from Canada Wild Rye to Smooth Blue Aster, which has provided homes to countless endemic species of insect and wildlife. You don’t have to be a museum lover to be taken by Storm King, a pair of eyes will suffice, and a roll down a hill comes recommended.
The Storm King Art Center is a day trip from New York, located about 2 hrs/99 kms from the city by road. Besides art, the place affords abundant wildlife sightings (coyotes, muskrats, red fox, among others) and resplendent stretches of natural beauty. Tickets have to be booked in advance. (stormking.org)
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.