by Joshua L. Durkin
Storm King Art Center, a public nonprofit museum on 500 acres featuring more than 100 sculptures, is located just outside of Newburgh, New York. Storm King was founded in 1960 and hosts permanent and loaned sculptures selected to fit the landscape of the Hudson Highland hills and fields.
I went with three friends, John, Bryant and Jessica, and it took about an hour and fifteen to get to Storm King from New Milford, Connecticut. None of us had been before.
by Joshua L. Durkin
The heat came off the ground, hammered down from the sky and blew at us from all angles, reminding me of being in the middle of a cramped studio full of sweat and hot amps and recording equipment – the kind of heated environment that awakens a physical ambivalence, which, on one hand revolts your body, and on the other, endears it to weather the pain in pursuit of success.
Storm King Art Center, a public nonprofit museum on 500 acres featuring more than 100 sculptures, is located outside of Newburgh, New York. Storm King was founded in 1960 and hosts permanent and loaned sculptures selected to fit the landscape of the Hudson Highland hills and fields.
I went with three friends, John, Bryant and Jessica, and it took about an hour and fifteen to get to Storm King from New Milford, Connecticut. We dressed light and bathed in sunblock before we even got to the place. Once there, we paid the admission ($12 for adults, discounts for students, senior citizens and children) and were directed by a jovial woman to a parking lot with lots of directions and suggestions on how we could enjoy the park. None of us had been before.
The woman suggested we take a tram to get an idea of the park’s layout, and then said we could walk around for more intimate looks. She pointed and we went.
The four of us sat in a tram at the foot of some weird elevator that looked like it took you from somewhere to nowhere. Little kids ran around the hills and fields. Many of the trees were new growth and landscaped evenly. The good shade trees were swarming with little humans and their neon backpacks, Dora The Explorer fanny bags and New Moon t-shirts. I wondered how I could make a sculpture of it all, if asked.
Then, like geese polluting the air with their belligerence and foul noise, the children broke from the trees and ran to the tram. It was so hot that I wondered if any of them would catch fire from the sun. The birds seemed fine, but kids are known to surprise any expectation you have of them. And a kid catching fire like an ant under magnified light would certainly violate anyone’s expectations, which the park would soon do.
John, Bryant and Jessica are visual artists, as well as purveyors of ideas and stuff relative to projects and work in general. Musicians. Painters. Photographers. Curators. Weird good people.
I’m a journalist. My mindstuff has a harder time figuring out massive abstract sculptures than your typical creative person. So, I figured I could rely on them for some insight. I’m attracted to all manners of art, but this was new to me.
Robert, the tram operator, told us over the loudspeak that we couldn’t smoke or drink or eat on the trip. John looked back at me and Bryant. He pulled his glasses down slightly and looked distressed, but only slightly. After all, he was seated next to a woman likely snuck from the personal stock of the long forgotten red -haired Celtic goddesses, and their Greek cousins and soulmates. That’s Jessica. Smart, polite, and clean. Whereas John, Bryant, and I resembled some raggy, jort-wearing messes with sunglasses. We looked like spawns of a confused encounter between Tom Waits and Snooki in a dumpster someplace near a KFC. On top of that and despite his glasses, John looks like the Geico Gecko, which Jessica enjoyed pointing out. It might sound absurd, but John pushes carts around all day, and as so, he possesses lizard-strong calves.
This humor stuck with us throughout the day. And if you are going to visit a place like Storm King, do so with good people and good humor, because what’s more important than experiencing the sculptures is that you experience it with friends who know how to both mock and entertain true admiration.
Outside the tram, in the kid-inflaming heat, to my left, stood a tall black sculpture made of material layered as feathers appear on a raven’s wing. Chakaia Bookers’ “Foci”. 35, maybe 45 feet tall. Thin like a slightly elliptical cigar. I tried to sketch it, but I was cut short by Robert and the automated soundtrack of the tram ride. It began.
I saw the park as a violation of expectations, which fits with a general consensus that abstract art is a visual language. The experience is about surprise and wonder — how the welded steel or carved stone looks and feels, and the capacity and curiosity to try to figure it out for yourself.
Storm King was in the midst of the second year of its 50th anniversary. To be clear, that’s how they put it.
We were alone in the front but for a gay Australian couple, which was fantastic because behind us in the next car sat roughly thirty kids who had clearly seen our sunglasses and jorts, smelled our cheap sun block and decided to sit in the other cars, and none of us were in the mood for dealing with them.
The speakers informed us that Mark di Suvero’s massive sculpture, designed in protest of the Vietnam War, stood to our left. Red I-beams, one of which sported a peace sign. “Mother Peace”, it was called. At that point, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It looked like a pile of painted steel childishly arranged in a field of burnt grass.
We then took a right through the parking lot. Bryant tapped John in front of us and looked at me.
“Look at that sculpture. It’s a garbage can,” he said.
“And there’s Josh’s car,” said John.
“This is awesome,” I said. Jessica politely nodded.
The tram went into the heart of taller trees near the Meadows section of the park, and past a great black Arch called rather appropriately “The Arch” ,by Alexander Calder. A massive black contortion of rivets and steel that a senile pseudo-hillbilly would later describe to a woman: “Hey, Irene. Look it’s a cattle plow. You’re a farm girl, right? It’s a plow!”
Off in the distance was a sculpture entitled “Adonai”, Hebrew for “God”, by Alexander Liberman. It looked like a close magnification of a cross-section of pickup sticks. Then we passed fields which were planted with switch grass and manicured for the view of Calder’s Arch and Adonai.
Robert the tram driver stopped at a three-way junction and several Australians got on, and then one got off and kept saying he lost his phone, which prompted all the Australians to get off and walk back to whatever part of the park they came from. Then we picked up the geriatric, senile pseudo-hillbilly, and three women. We pressed on into deeper woods.
To be clear, a pseudo-hillbilly is a man, usually, who exhibits all the traits of a rather vocal hillbilly, while being dressed in a way that would suspect him of being from different backgrounds. In this case, he looked like any old man in a light hat and shorts with hairless legs, white shoes, and a polo that did nothing to hide the fact that his gut was enormously American.
Visually, the sculptures were stunning. Now, beyond this, I don’t feel much like delving into the understandings of Abstract Art, mostly because it seems a subject that people like to vehemently argue about, but I’ll mention a few things.
One thing I kept thinking about during the tram ride, the walk after and the ride back home was, how prevalent are sculpture gardens and parks in America? Who supports them? America is a country obsessed with vacations and retirement…which wouldn’t be that bad if the obsessed didn’t forget that there are places all over America within a day’s travel which are beautiful.
I saw the park as a violation of expectations, which fits with a general consensus that abstract art is a visual language. The experience is about surprise and wonder — how the welded steel or carved stone looks and feels, and the capacity and curiosity to try to figure it out for yourself, the way that the first Dutch explorers gazed in awe at the fresh green breast of the new world, as Fitzgerald put it in The Great Gatsby. Parks like Storm King renew a sense of wonder, maybe not commensurate with our capacity for wonder, but certainly better than doing nothing at all, or worse, sitting on Formica and chewing Tex-Mex with a meat content of 38 percent on a good day, which only inspires wonder of how the food will look coming out.
The fields were like rhythmic tones occasionally interrupted by static pops and bent sounds. There’s a feeling common to being in an expanse such as that. The right kind of person for the environment can gaze at all before them and watch their life wander in and out of brief focus.
As for the sculptures, I couldn’t explain half of what I saw. But, it got me to thinking. The sculptures, for the most part, were full abstractions. A partial abstraction might change the color of an object in order to distance the object from reality, like Warhol’s Campbell soup cans in quadruplicate. A total abstraction does not intend to mimic something you can see in reality. Di Suvero’s protest sculpture, “Mother Peace”, doesn’t physically resemble the Vietnam War, and you might not have a clue what it was about unless you knew the title, but the size and shape of the piece seems to fit the intent.
I thought about journalism. FOX News, CNN, the Glenn Beck network, that conservative movie about Palin coming out, and wondered how abstract they all were. How our media at times seems so far removed from us. I remember Lou Dobbs holding meetings with “blue and white collar Americans” a few years back, and how sterile the conversations were. Each outlet wants you to believe that they’re there for you, to hear your opinion and express concern for it. That’s not to be cynical, however, there are good outlets out there. It’s interesting what Americans watch and consider true. Even Sarah Palin recently gave a little impromptu abstract performance on the history of Paul Revere. It didn’t mesh well with reality, but supporters were quick to absorb her statement as if the whole were taken right out of Orwell’s 1984, in which inconvenient information, history, was rewritten constantly.
We backtracked a bit through the parking lot and towards the South Fields. The geriatric, impotent, senile pseudo-hillbilly was in full stammer about our beards and Bryant’s backwards hat — a black and white International Harvester mesh hat. Between statements that awkwardly criticized the fact that we didn’t shave, one of the women asked Bryant why he wore his hat backwards. He considered a moment.
“Because I look sick in it,” he said quickly. She cocked her head and then looked away. She didn’t get it, and that question should have been answered for her a decade or three ago.
It was getting weirder and weirder. And the pseudo-hillbilly’s knees were bouncing all over the place. He looked like a fat pear with knobby toothpicks stuck out the bottom. Look at that! Look at that! Hey, you young guys are a pair of scruffy guys, huh?
Bryant and I exchanged looks. Later we’d find that we almost said the same thing. Some variant of Look, sir, we were brought up by parents that taught us to respect people in museums and parks, and in public in general. So, please sir. Shut the fuck up.
We passed Mark di Suvero’s “Frog Legs”, which I desperately wanted for the head of my future driveway. It looked foreboding and watchful, like a gargoyle. The geriatric, batshit crazy, impotent, senile pseudo-hillbilly who clearly unlearned any sense of object permanence, and so was enthralled by everything he saw simply because it didn’t seem to have existed before he saw it, got himself so excited about the hills and a British dry stone wall that I could barely think about it or enjoy it.
“Heh, The mosquito swamps are a good edition,” he mumbled, which would have been funny, if it wasn’t one of a thousand slobbered words he was in the middle of rambling.
The wall was impressive. Simply called “Storm King Wall”, it wound down a hill and disappeared into a pond and came up the other side where it wound like a diamondback through pine trees. And suddenly we were surrounded by geese, which fortunately did not start honking and filling the air with their belligerent bullshit.
John and Jessica were talking about something in front of us, and Bryant and I talked about one of the fields and how it looked straight out of one of the Blind Melon videos, which we couldn’t remember the title of, which I was in no way depressed about. Then the tram stopped. We barely had to look at each other. We quickly hopped off and began walking toward Zhang Huan’s “Three Legged Buddha”.
I began to look at all the sculptures and walls and work as if they were weird changes in rhythm and melody — unharmonious obstructions that make you crack your back straight and say wow.
It was a ways off down a trail through switch grass. The South Fields off to the right were interrupted every so often by a sculpture. The stone wall. Steel beams. But maybe the most impressive was the wave field, which was a field of waves carved into the earth.
We neared the giant Buddha, which had a good amount of shade under it. Everywhere I looked the scenery violated expectation, as if the entire park resembled the same mindstuff as Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue“. That’s when I figured the park out for myself. I began to look at all the sculptures and walls and work as if they were weird changes in rhythm and melody — unharmonious obstructions that make you crack your back straight and say wow.
We sat under the giant copper Buddha. The Buddha had an impressive head, but it was not attached to the body’s neck. Instead, it was slammed halfway into the ground by one of its own three feet. Eyes shut, top lip at ground level… as if, like a Titan, he slowly munched on the world.
A sense of calm. For hundreds of yards you see physical structures, and at the end of that view, di Suvero’s “Frog Legs”. We sat under the Buddha and talked about trying to win stuffed animals at carnivals. And then we walked and found an exhibit called “Waiting for UFO”, which John thought sounded like “Waiting for Godot”. Then we walked towards the museum and Jessica and I talked about “Godot” and theatre, which was refreshing because the heat was keeping us mostly subdued and quiet. On the way up a hill we stopped at a bamboo sculpture that looked like roller coaster. And here Jessica crowned John his physical relation to geckos, which I thought was great, because it’s easy to find mammals to compare to people, like dogs or cats or moose, but fish and lizards are a bit harder.
We found our favorite exhibits of the day in the museum building. Nearly every room had thigh-high plastic sculptures that propelled cool air as they oscillated. And then we went for food, and I thought about the fields and ate an organic peanut butter and raspberry sandwich.
The fields were like rhythmic tones occasionally interrupted by static pops and bent sounds. There’s a feeling common to being in an expanse such as that. The right kind of person for the environment can gaze at all before them and watch their life wander in and out of brief focus. We sat quietly and ate. I bought a grapefruit, ginger and honey ice bar. The heat was thick and we couldn’t think much, and on top of that we were sunburnt and also in the company of a rather gorgeous and intelligent woman. John lit a cigarette outside and smoked most of it before a woman told him politely that he couldn’t smoke there, or anywhere, in the park.
I sat back and started scribbling notes on a steno. I was in the middle of one of those highs you get after good exercise.
It’s like the onset of a coming tide of endorphins and adrenaline, perhaps triggered by a sudden shift in rhythm or intensity in a song, an interruption bursting out of the grounding of the song — the melody slows and hesitates just enough that you crane your head and strain for a second to hear if the song will pitter out, then it slams into your ears with great volume. Your head whirls like a Dervish. All your muscles feel calm. Your mind clear.
The withering, rare sounds… trill and full of tremor, awe, and haunting vibration. As if God’s own weirdest happy mechanical birds were set loose to give their swan calls before their end — except they’re forever frozen in sculpture and scattered across great swaths of land where new adventurers travel to see the old earth as fresh, green breasts of our new world.
Storm King Art Center is located at 1 Museum Road in New Windsor, New York. The musuem is open from 10am to 5:30pm Wednesday through Saturday and on holiday Mondays. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the ground are open until 8pm. For driving directions and more information, visit StormKing.org or call (845)534-3315.