Mountainville, N.Y. — I have passed Storm King Art Center on my route south to New York City for years. The rolling landscape of the upper Hudson River Valley, seen from the New York State Thruway, has an otherworldly quality, as if the trees are hiding secrets.
The best-kept secret is the center’s existence: The only hint of a sculpture park is a peek-a-boo glimpse from the highway of a huge, I-beam steel sculpture resting in a field like a giant’s plaything.
On a brilliant, rain-washed afternoon, my husband and I finally paid a visit to Storm King. The sculpture that had jolted us out of our 65-m.p.h. stupor turned out to be “Pyramidian” by Mark di Suvero, one of more than 200 large sculptures on the grounds.
The center, which is open to the public from April to the end of October, takes a bit of searching to locate, but rewards visitors with spectacular views, landscaped meadows, and stunning abstract works of welded steel.
While a typical museum might have one or two huge sculptures contained in an atrium or courtyard, Storm King spreads out such massive sculptures across fields and hills.
Each is placed with careful attention to the land and its contours. In some cases, the landscape is carved out or trees are planted to further the sculptural effect.
For example, maple trees planted along a roadway serve as an allée in the traditional European sense, but they also serve Modernist design: In late afternoon, their lollipop-shaped shadows playfully mimic the nearby sculpture.
This is landscape design on a sophisticated and grand scale.
Storm King Art Center began in 1960 as the project of two local businessmen, Ralph Ogden and H. Peter Stern. Ogden bought a French chateau-style house on 30 acres. He added additional acreage over time, some of which was farmland ruined by years of quarrying to provide gravel for construction of the thruway.
Determined to create a setting in which large sculptures could be enjoyed and appreciated, Ogden and Stern set about moving mountains – literally.
They hired landscape architect William Rutherford to oversee a massive, decades-long earthworks project to repair hillsides, plant trees, and plan pathways and views. (More on this in a second article.)
Storm King has matured into a landscape of graceful trees, contoured lawns, and tall-grass meadows. The scale can make you feel either tiny or superhuman depending upon your vantage point.
From the hill on which the house sits, we looked down on the rolling stretches of mowed field with the sculptures receding into the distance. A steady breeze cooled our faces, and leaning back in the grass, we watched the cloud formations and an occasional bird of prey riding the thermals overhead.
The sculptures hold court magnificently in their naturalized setting. A 30-minute tram ride provides highlights of the park for those without sufficient time or energy to walk the extensive grounds.
The signage on the sculptures is intentionally minimal; after a while, I gave up trying to identify each one and just let the experience flow over me.
Storm King began with 13 works by David Smith; today the center continues adding to its permanent collection and it also commissions new work.
In 1997 and 1998, British artist Andy Goldsworthy constructed a 2,278-ft. dry stone wall in one of the lower fields. The stone was gathered from around the property. The wall snakes around dozens of trees before terminating at the pond’s edge. It seems to go on for an impossibly long stretch.
But there’s joyous abandonment in this wall that capers around and refuses to takes its boundary role seriously.
Storm King’s genius derives from the interplay between sculpture and landscape, so much so that it’s hard to conceive of one without the other. The solidity and scale of the surrounding mountains find echoes in these monumental sculptures, which in turn give character and definition to the land.
After our visit, my husband and I felt reluctant to leave but refreshed by our detour. We wondered how many travelers drive past Storm King without ever noticing the di Suvero sculpture at its sentinel post, a glimpse of another world entirely.
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. Click here to read the second article, which focuses on Storm King's landscaping.