The idyllic vista of the Storm King Art Center’s sweeping lawns punctuated by modern sculptures has enchanted motorists traveling north on the New York State Thruway for decades. It’s a pastoral vision imbued with urban sophistication: Mark Di Suvero’s soaring, asymmetrical assemblages crafted of industrial steel beams, for instance, bear a clear kinship to the bold gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism, a movement rooted in the lofts of lower Manhattan.
Arriving at the sculpture park in Mountainville and venturing on foot across its 500 acres of rolling fields and woods, the vision remains intact. The placement of monumental works such as Alexander Calder’s Arch, a black stabile in which folded planes of steel carve out dynamic forms in space, and Alexander Lieberman’s Adam, an arrangement of giant orange cylinders perched on a hilltop, maximizes their dramatic, elemental character, as if each work were a personage in an ancient Greek drama and the field, sky, copses of trees and drenching daylight were the stage.
The most intimate space is the courtyard abutting the museum, which is populated with the smaller welded-steel pieces of David Smith: brushed-steel Cubistlike assemblages of geometric volumes and more delicate, linear pieces with figurative imagery that read as multiple drawings in space. At the other extreme are more recent works that tamper with the land itself, such as Maya Lin’s Wavefield, in which the earth is sculpted into rolling wavelike forms, and Andy Goldsworthy’s fieldstone Wall,which – very unwall-like – weaves around tree trunks and plunges into a pond.
Storm King was founded in 1960 as a showcase of Hudson River landscape painting, but after co-founder Ralph Ogden visited Smith’s studio at Bolton Landing and bought 13 works, the concept shifted to showcasing modern sculpture. Strolling over the extensive, perfectly groomed grounds, one discovers a pantheon of Modernist sculptors, from Smith to Louise Nevelson to Anthony Caro to Roy Lichtenstein to Donald Judd. However, more recent acquisitions represent a departure from the orthodoxy of abstract form and steel or wood, employing a rich variety of media. They include works such as Stephen Talasnik’s Stream: A Folded Drawing, a 115-foot-long tilting structure, part cave, part rollercoaster, crafted out of meshed bamboo; and Alyson Shotz’s Mirror Fence, a 130-foot-long picket fence covered with mirrors, which dissolves the plane of the fence into snippets of reflected space. The subtle interaction with the site and the viewer’s perambulations account for much of the interest of these more recent works.
The anomaly is Zhang Huan’s giant Three-Legged Buddha, an immense figurative work in copper that dominates the landscape like Soviet-era propagandist monuments depicting Communist leaders and heroic soldiers. It consists of the lower half of a crouching body with three roughly modeled bent legs and sandaled feet, one of which rests on a bald head with closed, meditative eyes, half buried in the ground. In contrast to the unexpected weightlessness of Menache Kadishman’s two massive black rectangles, one of which, hanging off the edge of its tilting partner, seems to levitate in space, Three-Legged Buddha is solidly earthbound, though the legs and feet are represented as dancing above the Earth.
Its politically charged, East-meets-West sensibility – the piece was inspired by a fragment of a gold-plated Buddha that was stolen from a Tibetan monastery during the Cultural Revolution – represent a departure from the formalism that otherwise rules. The image seems imbued with violence, but Zhang Huan himself interprets it differently. In an interview with Pernilla Holmes posted on his website, he noted that he once strapped a black plastic mannequin leg to his left leg (the artist achieved fame in the 1990s as a performance artist, first in China, later in New York) and considers a third leg to be “an origin of life and mythical power.” The worn patina of the Tibetan Buddha fragment moved him; he writes of a similar piece installed in London that, “According to the world of Samsara, Buddha is human, human is Buddha. Causality produces effects. I hope that this Three-Legged Buddha from the East will bring harmony to London and the world.”
Huan, who converted to Buddhism after his return to China in 2005, is the featured artist of a new exhibition at Storm King. Titled “Zhang Huan: Evoking Tradition,” the show features more than 15 sculptures and works-on-paper inspired by Buddhist imagery and related themes. Six of the large-scale sculptures are displayed outdoors, including one, Milly’s Temple, that incorporates a traditional Chinese gateway, on view for the first time.
Born in 1965, Zhang Huan was traditionally trained as an artist in Beijing, but rebelled against the Chinese regime with his radical performance art, in which the focus was often his naked body. For example, one piece consisted of sitting on a public toilet for three hours covered in fish oil, honey and flies; in another he hung bound and gagged from the ceiling while blood dropped from incisions made in his body.
After moving to the US, he continued to stage large-scale performances, including a 1999 piece at the Seattle Asian-Art Museum about his difficulties acclimatizing to America, in which 56 nude people posed on a scaffold pelted the artist, seated below them in a child’s pool, with loaves of bread. In his current work, he often uses incense ash and plays with massive scale, fabricating his sculptures with the help of 100 employees in his Shanghai studio.
More in keeping with the traditional landscape theme of Storm King is a special installation by Virginia Overton consisting of a nearly-500-foot-long slender brass tube that follows the curves and contour of a sloping hill. As the grasses grow waist-high, they’ll eventually hide the steel supports of the piece, which will seem to hover in space like a floating line. The Brooklyn-based artist, who was born in Tennessee, noted in a recent article in Art in America that the brass will change color as the seasons pass, further integrating the tube into the landscape. It also will transmit sounds, much like a musical instrument, and enable visitors to communicate by speaking into one end and listening at the other, creating “an intimate space in the vast landscape,” according to Overton.
“Zhang Huan: Evoking Tradition” through November 9 & “Overlooks: Virginia Overton” through November 30, Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturday/Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Memorial Day & Labor Day, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., $15/$12/$8, Storm King Art Center, 1 Museum Road, New Windsor; www.stormking.org.