Art Blooms on a Mountain
Librado Romero/The New York Times
“Solarium” (2012), by William Lamson, in the “Light & Landscape” exhibition at the Storm King Art Center.
By JOHN MOTYKA
Published: July 12, 2012
MOUNTAINVILLE, N. Y. — For decades, drivers in the steady stream of cars on the New York State Thruway have had a tantalizing glimpse of the striking works of outdoor sculpture at the Storm King Art Center. Some of the most heralded pieces in Modern and contemporary art seem to inhabit a near-enchanted realm among the rises and sloping shoulders of the surrounding uplands in the aptly named Mountainville.
The New York Times
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Anish Kapoor’s polished stainless-steel “Untitled” (1997), at Storm King.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Peter Coffin’s “Untitled (Yellow Outline),” at Storm King.
My 10-year-old niece, Maya, and I were intrigued by that glimpse, but as steady hiking partners, we also wondered about the huge mountain that looms to the west of the center, the one that broods in shadow or shines in the sun in tune with the hour and the season. We set out on a recent Sunday to hike up that mountain, called Schunemunk, and also to visit the art center itself with the thought that perhaps we’d absorb firsthand a subject with historical resonance in the Hudson Valley: the intertwining of nature and art.
Armed with the indispensable New York Walk Book, a guide to regional hiking, geology and natural history since 1923, we shouldered day packs at a trailhead parking lot and started up the Jessup Trail across a broad meadow that leads to the mountain.
The route took us across two brooks, down an old road in the woods and over railroad tracks until we came to a small waterfall on Baby Brook, a tumbling stream that eventually forms a ravine between the eastern and western ridges of Schunemunk (pronounced skun-uh-munk, it means “excellent fireplace” in the language of the Lenni Lenape Indians). The ridges were “folded” into shape when the tectonic plates of North America and Africa collided more than 250 million years ago.
After a steeper climb, the best parts of the hike were just ahead. Maya spotted a deer as it crashed through the underbrush. She also began to notice examples of “puddingstone” underfoot as we approached the upper ridge. Known more scientifically as Schunemunk conglomerate, it consists of pebbles and stones, some as large as seven inches across, embedded in a reddish-purple matrix of rock. A feature of the Devonian period of the Paleozoic era, puddingstone makes the ridge radically different from the lower mountain, the surrounding valley or even the Hudson Highlands farther to the east.
The upper ridge is a windswept world unto itself. Wild blueberry bushes grow in profusion under stunted pitch pines; puddingstone is even more prevalent; and the views are forever. Maya counted 4, then 8, then 10 hawks soaring above us, riding the thermals.
We were fortunate (as were the 32 other hikers she dutifully counted on the trail) to have a clear day, so we could see the Catskill and Shawangunk mountains to the north. Just as important, we could see at least a dozen pieces of sculpture at the Storm King center through our binoculars.
On our descent we came across a rock slab on the trail that was neatly enveloped by a seemingly voracious tree root, a natural sculptural form that foreshadowed the art center visit. Our encounter with what we were now calling big ideas — deep time, terrain, art — started to take shape.
The art center had a hand in protecting part of Schunemunk from development, thus preserving a scenic backdrop. In 1996 the Open Space Institute, preceded by a conservancy drive spearheaded by the center’s founders, bought 2,100 acres of the northern part of the mountain.
The immense sweep of Storm King’s 500-acre grounds and the large scale of the sculpture, hinted at from Schunemunk’s ridge, were immediately apparent as we pulled into the center’s south parking lot. The view made me think that Ralph Waldo Emerson, an inspiration to the Hudson River School painters (whose work Storm King’s founders originally intended to house here in the 1960s), must have been nearby when he wrote: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”
Actually, Maya and I were a bit weary from our four-mile hike, so we took a tram that runs roughly every 30 minutes. Our short look at the sculpture would necessarily be impressionistic, but I hoped we might experience a variation of what the essayist Kim Stafford has called “the sophistication of the intuitive.”
In that vein, Maya’s characterization of Alexander Calder’s classic “Arch,” an angular black iron stabile, as “a watering can” was a start. She warmed to Grace Knowlton’s “Spheres,” artfully arranged boulders in sparse woods. “Like marbles in a landscape,” she called them.
And she did not shy away from direct critique: Among the larger works, the darker-colored ones worked better for her than the red and orange pieces by Calder and others because “without bright colors, you can focus on the art and the natural scenery.”
On foot again after the tram ride, we climbed the hill on which the museum building perches to see Isamu Noguchi’s popular “Momo Taro,” named after the Japanese folk hero who was said to have emerged from a split peach. One of the sculpture’s granite pieces had reminded the sculptor of the tale, although it wasn’t peach pits that generally inspired him.
“The work that haunts my imagination the most,” Noguchi once said, “the one to which I would like my own to aspire is — Stonehenge.”
In late afternoon we headed for the center’s “south fields,” a 100-acre sward that is home to the huge works of Mark di Suvero. His pieces sit, mythic and dominant, astride the pastoral setting and conjure thoughts of “the machine in the garden” and the “technological sublime,” classic concepts from remembered American studies programs in my past.
We had made the trek on paths and through native grasses to the isolated southwest corner especially to see Richard Serra’s “Schunnemunk Fork.” Its name and pitch-perfect placement spoke to our all-day experience of the kinship of nature and art. Facing west, we looked directly at its burnished steel plates, which emerged from an earthen mound and also seemingly from Schunemunk Mountain itself. Maya likened it to “four shark fins riding the mountain into the sunset.”
STALKING THE WILD SCULPTURES OF THE HUDSON VALLEY
Storm King Art Center is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., until Nov. 25. (Grounds remain open until 8 p.m. on Saturdays through Sept. 1, and on Sept. 2.) At 1 Museum Road, New Windsor, N.Y. (GPS address), (845) 534-3115, stormking.org; $8 to $12; free for children under 5. Bicycles are available for rent for $8 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, or $32 for the day on weekdays; $10 per hour with a two-hour minimum, or $40 for the day on weekends.
“The New York Walk Book: A Companion to the New Jersey Walk Book,” seventh revised edition (2005), is available from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s Web site (nynjtc.org) for $22.95, plus shipping.
TRAILHEAD PARKING For the eastern ridge of Schunemunk Mountain, take the New York State Thruway to Exit 16 at Harriman, then go north on Route 32. After about seven miles, turn left onto Pleasant Hill Road. After less than half a mile, turn left onto Taylor Road. Follow for one-third of a mile to a small state parking space. To reach the center from the trailhead parking, return to Route 32 and drive north about 3.5 miles to Orrs Mills Road. Follow it for another half-mile to the center’s entrance.