Hudson Valley Art Trip

storm king art center naturalizes sculpture; dia:beacon sculpts nature.

One of the great pleasures of Storm King Art Center is how its monumental sculptures become liquid and flowing, melting into and out of what amounts to a Hudson River Valley mountain gallery. One could go every day and see these works in entirely new forms, not because they themselves change, but because their backdrops constantly change. The relational quality of object to environment becomes the story, the show, the pleasure of Storm King. Whether one looks at Ronald Bladen’s Untitled (Three Elements) or Louise Bourgeois’ Eyes or Mark di Suvero’s Pyramidian (which could be an oil geyser from which perhaps all the sculptures at Storm King gushed out?), or the series of Calder sculptures such as Five Swords that stretch across the open fields at the center of the Storm King grounds, the question starts to form in one’s mind as you walk the premises: what’s the foreground here and what is the background? Do the rolling fields, mountains, foliage, humming New York Thruway, and sky frame the art or is it in fact the art that serves to frame the landscape? Who are the actors here, exactly? What’s staging what? Who is sculpting whom?

Storm King Art Center with Alexander Calder’s Five Swords (1976) in the foreground. Photograph by Michael J Kramer, 2020.

DIA:Beacon, by contrast, enfolds its art in a more severe aesthetic that strives to remove nature from the equation. The hulking facility was once a Nabisco box-printing factory; now it’s a sprawling series of white gallery boxes. Is there much difference? The product is the thing, not the process of experiencing it. Much of the work is rigorously minimalist, and the goal is to let the art dominate, with no interference from the surroundings. But even here, whether in an almost endless array of John Chamberlain’s colorful crushed metal car-parts or with Michael Heizer’s seemingly bottomless holes in the ground, or maybe, most of all, with Richard Serra’s incredible Torqued Ellipses, nature has a way of oozing back in. If it doesn’t come as close to displacing the artworks as it does at Storm King, the natural world reappears. It does so not just in the glint of sunbeam off a dented silver Chamberlain fender or when a window frame of light dances across Serra’s massive structures. It also surfaces in the sculptures themselves, in the way Chamberlain’s pieces propose we pay attention to the mineral colliding with the synthetic in unbelievable jumbles, or the whisper suggested by him of enormous, calamitous, destructive energies intruding on human-made objects with terrifying force. Serra’s epic sheets of metal at first feel like the hulls of oil tankers, immobile and colossal, but the more time you spend with, around, and in them, the more they start to loosen from their moorings, turn gel-like and elastic, curving and warping, sometimes almost feeling like they might implausibly leap into the air. These sculptures are not displaced by the natural world, mere markers for the ever-changing performances of clouds and trees and fields. Rather, culture and nature blur into the object, art and life blend, the foreground and the background intersect.

Richard Serra, Torqued Ellipses (1996-2000), at DIA:Beacon.

At Storm King, the distance grows between sculpture and what it stands out against—let’s call it non-sculpture—in ways that movingly and beautifully redirect attention; at DIA:Beacon, the most intriguing works attempt a new synthesis of objects and their settings, refusing to be boxed in to the binary. Either place, one finds artistic encounters worth pursuing for the ways in which they open one’s senses to the interplay of nature and culture and the sculpting of the spaces, or lack thereof, between them.

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