Flash Points Editor Rachel Craft interviewed David R. Collens, Director and Curator of Storm King Art Center, about the institution’s focus on the relationship between art and nature. —Ed.
Rachel Craft: In the description of Storm King on your website, you emphasize the surrounding environment of the Hudson Highlands, and how that panorama is essential to the overall viewing experience. How does this interaction with the landscape factor into your planning and curation of exhibitions at Storm King?
David R. Collens: The magnificent setting of the Storm King Art Center, surrounded by the Storm King and Schunnemunk mountains, is like no other. To understand the place today, it is important to understand its history. Fifty years ago, Peter Stern and Ralph “Ted” Ogden, who were business partners, and the great landscape architect Bill Rutherford worked together to realize their singular vision for a place that brought sculpture and landscape into a sublime union.
The landscape plays a central role in all curatorial decisions: Each of the 100-plus sculptures installed at Storm King is carefully sited with an eye to its relationship with the surrounding landscape, which includes verdant fields and meadows, some seeded with native grasses, as well as allées, rolling hills, and woodlands. Like its landscape and vistas, Storm King’s collection, which today spans the years from post World War II to the present, has evolved over time. Our first sculpture acquisition was a work by Austrian artist Karl Pfann. After extended discussion, Ted Ogden and Peter Stern decided to install it outdoors. As Peter has said, with that gesture, “the dialogue between art and nature opened.” Another early acquisition was Henry Moore’s resplendent Reclining Connected Forms (1969), which is sited on the lawn that surrounds the museum building. An important turning point was the acquisition of a group of thirteen sculptures by David Smith. They were originally installed as the artist had grouped them at his place in Bolton Landing, New York. However, we came to realize that thoughtfully positioning the works where they could interact with the landscape showed them to their full advantage.
It is important to mention that each visit to Storm King is different, depending on the season, time of the day, changing light conditions, and weather. People return over and over, as no two visits are the same. Moreover, because Storm King is best experienced on foot, visitors are encouraged to hike right up to the sculptures and engage with them. It’s quite wonderful to see the works in the distance and approach them from different angles, then look back to where you came from. I enjoy watching visitors approach the monumental works and seeing how they react when they realize just how massive the sculptures are.
Our ongoing goal is to continue to enrich the collection and deepen the experience for our visitors while maintaining the unique Storm King experience.
RC: You describe how the sculptures are affected by changes in light and weather. What are your favorite viewing conditions?
DRC: While each viewing condition is extraordinary in its own way, morning and late afternoon light are particularly interesting times to view the works. Every day, every hour, even every minute offers a new and unique revelation. Light, the quality of the sky and clouds, and the weather devise fresh encounters and perspectives. Sometimes, because of the mountains and climate, we get mists, fogs, and frosts which can be quite wonderful. I have been at Storm King since 1974, and each walk I have taken through the landscape has been and continues to be exceptional.
RC: How does the interaction between art and nature influence the programming and educational goals of the institution?
DRC: The interaction between art and nature informs the core of Storm King’s programming. With 500 acres of pristine landscape, we are more than a museum. We want our visitors to be inspired and delighted by a holistic experience. We want them to consider art in a new way, against earth and sky—exploring sculptures individually and in relation to works around them, all within the context of nature. We also strive to contribute to the understanding and appreciation of outdoor sculpture generally and within the art world community specifically; its creation, installation, conservation, and preservation.
Our public programs take full advantage of the setting, with docent-led walking and tram tours, hikes on the wooded trails, concerts, readings, talks, panel discussions, and family activities. We’ve even had kite-making and flying programs which add an element of fun to the enjoyment of the collection, particularly for budding art-lovers.
RC: How do you approach the acquisition of artwork for the collection?
DRC: It is interesting to note that the original vision of the co-founders was a museum of Hudson River School paintings. It’s hard to imagine now—given the exceptional sculptures that comprise Storm King’s collection today.
We have been able to be very selective, acquiring works that best fit within both the collection and the natural surroundings. It has been a great pleasure for me to work with some of the most acclaimed artists of our time—those with a particular kinship to landscape and the environment—on site-specific commissions. It is fascinating to see how these different artists, including Isamu Noguchi, Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy, and, most recently, Maya Lin, have responded to the landscape. Maya’s Storm King Wavefield (2007-08), a reclamation project that transformed a gravel pit into a majestic earthwork, opened in May 2009. It is a fabulous addition to Storm King. From the Storm King Wavefield site, visitors can look over to Andy’s Storm King Wall (1997-98), and, through the trees, to towering sculptures by Mark di Suvero. Storm King Wavefield has proven to be a very popular destination within the Storm King grounds, attracting new visitors from around the globe. Like Andy’s Storm King Wall, Richard Serra’s Schunnemunk Fork (1990-91), and monumental painted steel sculptures by Mark and Alexander Calder, Storm King Wavefield has become a hallmark of the Storm King experience.
It is important to remember that our sculptures stay outdoors all year long, so durability and materials, as well as aesthetic considerations, of course, are important. For an outdoor museum in the Hudson Highlands, resiliency is essential. Materials typically include metal, wood, glass, stone, and fiberglass. Chakaia Booker created marvelous sculptures with recycled rubber tires. Some works require more conservation than others, but we are ever-vigilant and attentive. Kenneth Snelson’s exhuberant Free Ride Home (1974), a construction of aluminum rods and steel wire that is sited on a plateau of a hill, has required only minimal conservation since its acquisition in 1975. Because Storm King is open to the public from April 1 through mid-November, the off-season period provides the opportunity to take measures to conserve the work and landscape without intruding on visitors’ enjoyment.
RC: How does the process for site-specific works develop with the artist?
DRC: While it always involves extended discussions between Storm King and the artist, this process is different every time. Isamu Noguchi, for example, was much admired by Peter Stern. After what he described as a “two-year courtship,” Peter was ultimately successful in bringing the artist to Storm King. It was here that he drew inspiration for what was to be the forty-ton granite Momo Taro (1977-78). Like Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy, and Maya Lin after him, Isamu was given free rein to choose his location, subject, and material. Momo Taro is based on a Japanese fairy tale about a couple who yearned for a child. The child eventually arrives, emerging from a large peach. The hollow center of the peach was created by the artist with the idea that children would climb in it like the child from the story. And they gleefully do!
In the most recent example, Maya Lin spent several years visiting and walking every acre of Storm King. For Storm King Wavefield she worked in the tradition of monumental earthworks created in the 1960s and 1970s but with a contemporary perspective, encouraging us to examine and connect with our natural surroundings. The result, the largest site-specific earthwork by the artist to date, is extraordinary. Seven rows of hills made from reclaimed gravel, soil, and native grasses, each over 300 feet long, replicate the form of ocean waves. This work culminates a series of three wavefields that includes The Wave Field, in Ann Arbor, and Flutter, in Miami. It was a great pleasure working with Maya and her talented team to realize her vision for this exceptional living sculpture.
In addition to maintaining the permanent collection sculptures, every year or every other year, we develop a special exhibition for the season. For our fiftieth anniversary next year, we are planning to look back and celebrate what we’ve done, as well as to look ahead with several new commissions and acquisitions.