Why some sculpture parks are better than others

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – I’m not the first person to have divined that sculpture parks provide the safest way to enjoy art during a pandemic. Options abound, especially in the Washington DC, region. Sadly, Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md, which has a lot of outdoor art in a stunning setting, is closed.

But the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden is open, and the National Gallery’s sculpture garden is open on Valentine’s Day.

Getting out of the city, though, is even better – ideally, as far from home as possible. On a recent road trip, I explored two sculpture parks over two days and have formed the considered opinion that there are at least two kinds of sculpture park. What’s more, I prefer the first kind.

The first kind, in this case, is not officially a “sculpture park”. It is the campus of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The Clark is known primarily for its dazzling array of Monets and Renoirs and its generous dollop of Old Masters, but it recently branched out with a long-term show (through October 17) of outdoor sculpture. I loved it.

The second kind is America’s best-known sculpture park: Storm King Art Center, on the Hudson River, about an hour north of Manhattan.

‘Neruda’s Gate’ (2005) and ‘Frog Legs’ (2002) by Mark di Suvero, at Storm King. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The Clark, located on the fringe of Williams College in the Berkshires, combines a distinguished set of galleries with a major research institute and a conservation centre. It occupies 140 acres of woodland and open pasture stretching across a hill that rises behind the museum. Since its makeover in 2015, the museum has activated this dreamy setting with walking trails. And in the summer, it installed eight sculptures by six artists (all of them women), in a presentation that the curators, Molly Epstein and Abigail Ross Goodman, titled Ground/work. It is free and open to the public 24 hours a day (you don’t need a ticket).

I first visited the show in high summer, soon after it had opened. When I returned last week, the temperature was 10 degrees and falling, and I had to dust snow off several of the sculptures just to see them. I stepped out of the warm car, pulled on my mittens and, adrenalised by the cold, started up the hill through the forest. It was 10 minutes before I saw any art, but that gave me time to feel my heart pumping and to register certain baseline realities – for example, the world is three-dimensional.

Here, as I see it, is the problem every sculpture park must reckon with: How do you compete with nature? How do you present art that isn’t made instantly redundant by the trees, the swell and dip of the Earth, by birdsong, breezes and, in this case, snow? Almost any tree, let’s face it, is more impressive as a sculptural form (let alone as a biological system) than anything a sculptor might concoct. And any bird is more miraculous – physically, visually, poetically – than a static, ploddingly overthought human artefact.

Yet still, we have sculpture. What the curators of Ground/work have done about the problem strikes me as exemplary. They have prioritised the setting over the art. They have placed the work in a way that allows visitors to steep themselves in the outdoors and to respond, without feeling herded or driven, to the moods of forest and hill, snow and sunlight. Thus sensitised, their receptiveness hopefully heightened, they are encouraged to take in some terrific sculpture. But at no point is their sense of the landscape’s primacy overturned.

The first sculpture I saw, after a five – or 10-minute hike through the woods, was one of three entrancing pieces by Haegue Yang, a South Korean artist who has fabricated upright, disc-like forms made from light gray, corrugated soapstone. Perched on each of these unusual, mellow forms is a transparent sculpture of a small bird, made from 3-D printed resin and cut into solids and hollows that serve as perches or baths for actual birds.

Snow, rather than rainwater, filled the hollows when I saw Yang’s pieces, so I saw no birds taking up the invitation. But the piece’s loveliness – both physically and as a poetic offering to nature – harmonised my presence in the setting, putting me in mind of Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

“I was of three minds,/ Like a tree/ In which there are three blackbirds.”

Trying to read the complicated, colour-coded trail map, I, too, was of three minds. But I soon found my way to A Device to See the World Twice, a sculpture by Kelly Akashi that resembles a giant magnifying glass. Propped upright by tree limbs cast in bronze, it is directed toward a giant ash tree.

For Akashi, casting natural forms – fixing them in time, arresting their evolution – is analogous to photographing them. The comparison reminded me of Georges Bataille’s idea that animals exist in the world like water in water, whereas humans are always trying to lift themselves out of life’s flux by objectifying, or fixing, the things that they are not. This urge to objectify and thereby transcend nature is the source, he implies, of all our travails.

The pathos of casting wood in a forest and of setting up a lens to see what’s already plainly visible took a dramatic turn during the installation when the great ash tree suddenly collapsed. Its core was rotten. The resulting ruin is spectacular – and a sobering reminder that nature’s flux, its evolution, can change speed without notice.

To get to the sculpture I loved most at the Clark, Nairy Baghramian’s Knee and Elbow, I emerged from the forest trails and walked across a brief, bare expanse of snow combed by cold winds. Baghramian is Armenian Iranian and based in Berlin. Knee and Elbow is a poetic evocation, in pink and white marble (with some stainless steel), of the joints of human limbs. Magnified and abstracted, the forms are made strange. But the warm, pitted marble, the contrasts of pink and white, and the organic awkwardness and asymmetry of the forms themselves give them a deep human expressiveness. Set against the snow on the hillside meadow, with Williamstown in the distance, I found the work ravishing: intimate and monumental; tactile yet aloof; conceptually unfussy yet infinitely suggestive.

Another work at the Clark I loved is called Teaching a Cow How to Draw. It takes the form of a functional wooden fence, separating the meadow (a cow pasture) from the museum. Between each wooden fence post is a diagram, made from the same crude wood, demonstrating various theories of composition, from the rule of thirds to the golden ratio and two-point perspective.

This 620-foot-long exercise in bovine pedagogy is by Analia Saban, who was born in Argentina and lives in the United States (US). It’s very droll, perhaps even fatally cute. Questions about the relationship between art and nature seemed to quiz the very air around it, and it charmed me with its good-humoured modesty.

Storm King, which I visited the following day, prioritises the art over nature. The land Storm King occupies is three times larger than the Clark’s. But the park’s designers and most of the sculptors treat the setting like an empty canvas, or a confection of artificial vistas that the sculptures themselves (overwhelmingly giant, abstract steel works) punctuate like giant glyphs. There are too few trees, and those there are line long, imperial “allées”. In winter you traipse around the park feeling like an ant traversing the tundra, spying distant sculptures that get no more interesting – only bigger, more intimidating – as you approach.

The official talk is of art and nature in harmony, but in truth, both the art and the landscaping are trying to outmuscle nature, rework it, master it. You can admire the ambition, but in the end, the feeling is of art as an expression of imperialism.

I am generalising – there are many things I loved at Storm King.

Two were out of commission on my recent visit: Isamu Noguchi’s granite sculpture Momo taro was partially wrapped in tarpaulin, and Maya Lin’s popular Storm King Wavefield was off-limits because the ground was too wet. Other works – such as Ursula von Rydingsvard’s wooden monoliths and Lynda Benglis’ waves cast in bronze – are large but not crushing. They seem to yearn to be reintegrated with the flux of nature, like abandoned ruins in a landscape.

But I found so many other sculptures at Storm King triumphal and oppressive.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Founded and opened to the public in 1960, Storm King was intended as a museum devoted to Hudson River School painting. But its founders – the late H Peter Stern and his father-in-law, Ralph E Ogden, co-owners of the Star Expansion Company, which made fasteners – had fallen in love with modern sculpture and, in particular, abstract steel sculptures by the likes of David Smith, Alexander Calder and Mark di Suvero. The heavy metal gang.

They had space to burn. “Every period of high civilisation has shown great art in beautiful houses, beautiful gardens,” Stern once told Harvard Magazine. “That is why I have such a strong feeling about giving everything space, of putting sculptures in relationship to everything else. And of not overdoing things.”

But not overdoing things, at Storm King, translates to long walks down unbending avenues or across bleak fields to reach sculptures that are stupendous in scale but offer no secrets, no wit, no sense of inner life.

What stands out in Stern’s quote is “high civilisation”. In those triumphant postwar years, America’s art world tastemakers really believed that abstract art was the defining expression of a high (American) civilisation, sharing a lineage with imperial France (hence the park’s description of its avenues as allées), Rome and Greece.

This was the Kool-Aid almost everyone in the art world was drinking in those days. The artists most prominent at Storm King – Smith, Calder, Richard Serra, Louise Nevelson and many others – are all great. But to see only mammoth examples of their work against a landscape effectively beaten into submission is to be reminded of how hollow all that mid-century rhetoric now sounds, how lacking in humility it was and how generally superior, as sculptural forms, are trees.