THE best time to walk in the new Henry Moore Sculpture Garden, located on the south grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum here, is at twilight in summer or fall. Then the fading light slants down across the whispering 17-acre expanse of trees and lawn. A golden glow hovers over the winding, red crushed-stone pathways. The broad central mall, extending down the slope from the museum's south face to the bordering Brush Creek Blvd., is newly terraced, and the thousands of daffodils, Japanese yew trees, Chinese ginkgo trees, and areas of Baltic ivy invite reflection. There, just ahead lies a copse of young trees. As you come forward, however, the stones crunching pleasantly under your feet, you discover one of those trees isn't a tree at all. It is one of 12 monumental Henry Moore bronze sculpture pieces dispersed throughout the garden. This one is called ``Upright Motive No. 9.'' It stands 11 foot high, has a dark green color, and is somewhat suggestive of a female torso.
``It masquerades as a tree trunk at first,'' explains Jacque Robertson, one of the two architect/urban designers responsible for the plan of the garden. We are strolling together along the western periphery. We take our time. The garden does that to you. ``We hope this piece does what Henry Moore always wanted his sculpture to do - stand in a family of natural forms. We placed it here in this grove of trees; so there is, in effect, a dialogue between the man-made and natural forms.''
Another bronze stands to our left, far across the mall's open space. It is framed within a lattice-like portal. A tall pine almost seems to touch it. ``That is the `Large Totem Head,''' explains Mr. Robertson, following my gaze. ``Actually, if you sit directly across the mall, you see, first, the large pine and, there, rubbing against it, is this mysterious shape. It's not an intruder, though - it belongs there.''
He looks around. You gradually become aware of other large forms nestled in dells, arching against the sunset sky, reclining against the shoulders of soft hillocks.
The guidebook tells you they have names like ``Large Torso: Arch,'' ``Three Part Object,'' and ``Large Interior Form.'' There's even a 14-foot-high bronze work called ``Sheep Piece.'' The titles are like their shapes - merely suggestive, primarily nonrepresentational.
This garden is unique, Robertson is saying. ``Rarely will any museum acquire a large number of figures by a major sculptor; and here you find the biggest collection of Henry Moore monumental bronzes, sited together anywhere in the world outside of London.''
Sir Alan Bowness agrees. He is the director of the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham, the village 30 miles north of London that Henry Moore called home for over 40 years. Sir Alan came to Kansas City for the June 4 opening of the garden. He spent that day talking to other Henry Moore specialists, historians, and collectors who came from around the globe.
``My first reaction is to say there is nothing in the world like this,'' says Sir Alan. ``Certainly as far as Henry Moore is concerned, there is no [other] sculpture garden devoted only to his work, as this is. Yes, there is a much larger collection of work at the Hakone Sculpture Park in Japan, but Henry's work is crowded in with that of other sculptures, and the conditions are more crowded than he would have liked. He would have preferred this.''
David Finn, a photographer who has spent many years studying and shooting Henry Moore's work, and who has written the massive ``Henry Moore: Sculpture and Environment'' (1977), joins us in the greening stillness. ``I must say I have never seen a spot as beautiful as this. Here you have the kind of space available that perfectly integrates Moore's pieces with nature.''
When Henry Moore died in 1986, he was acknowledged as one of this century's finest sculptors, along with Picasso, Brancusi, Alexander Calder. He is best known for the monumental works that appear in parks and public places throughout the world. Never strictly representational, his pieces nonetheless are usually suggestive of human or animal forms. The Kansas City garden is testimony to his growing popularity in areas far from his home. Yet the question hangs in the twilight stillness: Why Kansas City?
Perhaps it began on the day in 1972 when Henry Moore came here to site ``Sheep Piece.'' He spent several delightful days touring the city's famous parks system. ``I know Henry was pleased at that project,'' explains Sir Alan. ``He had quite strong views about where his sculptures should be seen. He wanted them out of doors. He didn't want them in museums or galleries.
``The idea was to find open settings, but articulated with trees and hills. Had he lived, he would have found this park ideal for his work.''
In 1986, Marc Wilson, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, learned that the a Wichita businessman was selling a portion of his enormous collection of Moore's work. Mr. Wilson also knew that Don Hall, head of the Hall Family Foundation and son of the late Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark cards, headquartered in Kansas City, was familiar with Moore's work and had admired it from a distance. ``When we learned some of the collection was for sale, we jumped at it,'' recalls Mr. Hall. ``We have put the bronzes and other pieces on `permanent loan' at the Nelson. We have no intention of moving them!''
According to Deborah Emont Scott, project coordinator and curator of 20th-century art at the museum, the $2.5 million project went forward on two fronts. The first goal was to establish a Henry Moore Study Center, to include 42 working models and maquettes (preliminary models, the sculptural equivalent to artist's sketches), a massive collection of photographic studies by David Finn, and an archive of papers and documentation of Moore's works.
The second phase, of course, was the garden itself.
From over 40 architectural firms, Dan Kiley and Jacque Robertson were selected. They worked with a Kansas City team from the Nelson, the Hall Family Foundation, and the parks and recreation department. ``Then we went to the Moore Foundation in Much Hadham,'' explains Robertson, ``where we worked with aerial views of the Nelson's grounds, topographical charts, and photographs. We consulted with the Moore experts there in determining the proper placement of the 12 bronzes.
What all these parties together have produced is an exercise in ``future thinking.'' What you see now is merely the seedling of its further development. Inasmuch as it can cooperate with the landscape, its future is assured.
``Somehow, this was what Henry was all about,'' avers Sir Alan, who had known the sculptor since 1960. ``Henry was not what most people would imagine an artist to be. He was forthright, simple, and not terribly talkative about his work or art in general. He felt he had a gift and just wanted to make it available for others to see.''
We come finally to the famous ``Sheep Piece.'' Earlier, I had seen some children nudging up to the friendly, rounded forms. ``Some people are puzzled and say: `What has this to do with sheep?''' says Sir Alan. ``Of course, this hasn't anything to do with with sheep. It's more about fundamental things, like relationships between people, the need to touch, to bring forms into close contact - that kind of thing. Henry had his own copy of this piece, you know.''
We pause in the darkening light before the massive but gentle 14-foot-high figure. ``He placed it in a meadow in Much Hadham amidst a flock of sheep,'' Sir Alan continues. `They've been nuzzling and rubbing against it for years. And you'll notice, if you've seen the photographs, that the sheep have rubbed the patina smooth.''
The piece before us is in considerably better shape. It is as yet untouched by humans or animals. I want to touch it, but I turn away. For now.