Environmental Art: Sculpture

Storm King Art Center is a unique 500 acre sculpture park in the Hudson Highlands, an hour north of New York City, where the landscape and the art have equal importance as the exhibits are curated and created. The grass, trees, and sky are part of the gallery—the natural environment not only compliments the art, the natural environment is part of the art.

Storm King Art Center South Fields. Sculptures by Mark di Suvero. Photo Credit: Storm King

Site of environmental history

In 1960, father and son team Ralph E. Ogden and Peter Stern established Storm King Art Center as a museum dedicated to the Hudson River School paintings. They began to collect sculptures to place around the outside of the building. When the art center purchased thirteen works by David Smith in 1966, they had an aha moment, realizing that placing the art in the landscape enhances the art and the landscape, and ever since then, art has been placed with its immediate surroundings as well as its far off landscape in mind.

A sketch of the proposed hydroelectric plant superimposed on Storm King Mountain, ca. 1965. From the Scenic Hudson Collection at Marist College

Around that time, however, Storm King Mountain was in danger of becoming the site of a hydroelectric power plant by Consolidated Edison Company. The local community mobilized, creating the Scenic Hudson Preservation Committee and challenging the plan in court. They ultimately won, though it took almost twenty years for all of the battles to be fought. Their efforts inspired the modern environmentalist movement as a multidisciplinary movement of scientists, concerned citizens, journalists, lawyers, and even artists. One of the groups that grew out of the Storm King Mountain Controversy is the Open Space Institute (OSI), an organization which buys land for the sake of protecting it or makes sure that people will not develop land. Storm King Art Center works closely with OSI to protect the lands around the outdoor galleries so that the art’s landscapes will be preserved.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbrow (1836). Thomas Cole was one of the founders of the Hudson River School Artists. Image in the Public Domain

Storm King Art Center is located physically and historically in the middle of this landscape. The Hudson River Valley’s beauty inspired the Hudson River School artists to develop new ways of portraying light in paintings, and the fight to preserve its natural resources began the modern environmentalist movement.

Protecting our “Viewshed”: Landscapes as a Natural Resource

The Storm King Art Center, as Senior Advisor and Counsel Anthony Davidowitz told me, has protecting the “viewshed” surrounding the art as part of its mission. This formulation of viewshed parallel to a watershed emphasizes their point that the landscape itself is a natural resource. They keep track of their viewshed by creating a map that records which views are available from which angles where on the

Mark di Suvero, Beethoven’s Quartet, 2003 Photo Credit: Storm King

property. Part of Storm King Art Center’s mission is to curate “monumental art set against the landscape with beautiful vistas,” as the President of the art center says in a video on their website. They do this by curating every piece carefully in the space and landscape chosen for it. This sometimes involves changing the landscape—moving earth to make slopes, enhancing the soil security through flattening very steep gradients, or (my favorite) planting trees in three sides of a square to create a “maple gallery.” They are, however, always careful to balance the ecological needs with the art’s needs.

Because the landscape and natural environment is as important to their mission as the art, they cultivate a sense of environmental stewardship. For example, as Davidowitz explained to me, they used to grow and bale hay in several acres of the grounds of art center every year as a way of commemorating that the land used to be farm land. They stopped doing this, however, just in the last few years in favor of planting native grasses and wildflowers because they learned of recent research that has shown the negative effects of exotic species on soil composition and overall ecology of landscapes. “Planting local flora and fauna is important to us from the standpoint of environmental stewardship,” Davidowitz shared, “but it also affects the visitor’s experiences of the art.” The art and the environment are truly one and the same.

The Art Impacts the Environment, the Environment Impacts the Art

Maya Lin, a sculptor best known for her work on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, DC, created a piece at Storm King Art Center called “Wavefield.” The third piece in a series of wave fields, “Wavefield” was built in an eleven acre field on the grounds of Storm King that had previously been a gravel pit supplying material for the Throughway. Choosing that site reclaimed unusable land. The art piece itself, seven parallel waves which form crests and valleys, evokes waves from the ocean but also echoes the mountains and valleys in the distance. You can get lost in it when you walk through it, yet it is an incredibly familiar image from afar. The New York Times reviewed it and created this video:

As she was creating the piece, Lin kept a careful count of all the energy used in the construction and her transportation to the site. She then planted more than 200 trees to offset the carbon imprint of her work to achieve her goal of a carbon neutral installation. As she shared in the video:

“What has been really the exploration for me is that especially within the art I have gotten back to my first love and interest which was science and nature and the environment.”

Andy Goldsworthy, The wall that went for a walk. Storm King Art Center

Andy Goldsworthy, another artist whose work has been featured at Storm King Art Center, has a similar attitude toward environmental art. His media are almost always from nature, and often quite temporary, so he takes pictures of the artwork he makes. At Storm King Art Center, he has created rock walls which compliment the landscape by winding around trees, or simply just winding as in “The wall that went for a walk.” The forests surrounding the art center’s grounds are full of rock walls as it used to be farm land, so constructing new rock walls is an interesting enterprise in terms of history and land use dynamics. Goldsworthy is very aware both of the impacts of his art on the environment and the impacts of the environment on his art, as he says in a quotation on Morning Earth.org:

“Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.”

Final Word

A visitor’s experience at Storm King Art Center involves multiple senses. The sculptures can be seen and touched; some (especially the metal pieces) can also be heard by hitting them with rubber mallets. The weather is felt by the viewer as well, and it is also felt by the art installation and by the landscape. This reflects the multisensory, interdisciplinary, and unifying nature of nature itself: it cannot simply be seen, heard, felt or thought about—it must be experienced in all of those ways and it connects us all. Therefore the phrase “environmentalist art” should not provoke confusion but should rather feel redundant. The depth of the connection that we feel to the environment, the confusion and moment of transition of climate change, activism and protest can and should be expressed through art and experienced in as many ways as we can imagine.