CORNWALL, N.Y. >> New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced that all regions of New York except New York City have entered the fourth and last phase of reopening, which authorizes museums, historical sites and other cultural institutions to welcome visitors once more.
Not so fast. From Albany to Suffolk County, almost all of the state’s regional museums have declined to open immediately and are using these next weeks to prepare to exhibit art under new sanitary conditions.
So where to go this summer, especially if you’re an art-starved tourist? You want to be careful, you want as much space as you can get, and more than anything you want to be outdoors. Right now that means your smartest move is the immense Storm King Art Center, a sprawling sculpture park full of large-scale and site-specific works in the Hudson Valley, which reopened to the public last week. Located about 70 minutes north of Manhattan in COVID-thinned traffic, the park is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, offering a restorative dose of nature and culture for those in the grip of agitated cities and glaring screens. A visitor center with a small suite of indoor galleries won’t open this year; large group visits are barred, various public programs are suspended, bike rentals are unavailable. To visit you need to book a time slot in advance, and you’ll need a car or a taxi because there won’t be the usual shuttle service from the Metro-North station in Beacon. The on-site cafe is closed, though restrooms are open.
Bring a mask — you have to wear it when social distancing is impossible, though there’s ample space here — and check the weather: I visited on a flesh-scorching afternoon, trudging across this 500-acre outdoor museum until my head started spinning. (Critic’s pick: a water bottle and a drugstore umbrella!)
Across Storm King’s open fields and rolling meadows are giant works by Sol LeWitt, Alice Aycock, Ursula von Rydingsvard; ensconced within the paths of a wood is smaller, earlier statuary by names grown obscure, as well as a weathered, trowel-nicked concrete slab by Mia Westerlund Roosen, a post-minimalist sculptor well overdue for rediscovery. A few sculptures here, curators have observed in years past, are notorious for attracting close inspections and caresses: Joel Shapiro’s 21-foot-tall geometric totem of a walking figure; Nam June Paik’s bronze Buddhas watching TV. They have been ringed this season with thin black ropes; not lovely, but you’ll live.
In these first days of artistic reentry, you might find yourself drawn as much to the lush landscape as to the large sculptures that punctuate it. The meadow grasses and wildflowers have grown high around Richard Serra’s “Schunnemunk Fork” (1990-91) a suite of four weathered steel plates that originally sliced across the mowed lawn but now nearly disappear into the brush.
Nearby, Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wave Field” (2009), an 11-acre earthwork of grassy knolls that ripple like the sea, has been reseeded. This undulant non-site, neither properly architecture nor properly sculpture, feels more solemn today than it might have in years past, more of a burial ground than a surf.
Turn your back to the “Wave Field,” take off your mask, breathe in, look out.
Across the southernmost fields of Storm King, Mark di Suvero’s titanic steel articulations remain the paradigmatic sculptures of Storm King, their abstract concatenations of beams and panels towering majestically over the grassland. Among the 10 monumental works here by di Suvero, the newest arrival is also the largest: the 90-foot-tall “E = MC2” (1996-97), a square pyramid of rusted steel H-beams topped by four stainless steel planks that extend into a sort of crown. It may be giant, but it’s not overawing. Di Suvero understands better than almost any artist the distinction between size and scale — and this serene work, breathing easy in Storm King’s largest field, feels as approachable as a family member.
Along with its permanent sculpture collection, and long-term loans like di Suvero’s “E=MC2,” Storm King also presents annual exhibitions of new commissions. One of this year’s planned shows, by Kiki Smith, was meant to take place both indoors and outdoors. The indoor part was scrapped, and what remains is of limited interest: “River Light” (2019), a circle of nine flagpoles whose banners derive from cyanotypes (or cyan- blue prints) she made of the East River of Manhattan, its surface flickering with reflected luminescence.
(A 10th flagpole, off to one side, supports a flag depicting a Hudson River sunset.)
In the pastoral setting of Storm King, these flags have a pseudo-governmental overtone that feels discordant; they look uncannily like the rows of identical blue flags outside the institutions of the European Union in Brussels. Within this abstract eden, her bronze statues of humans and animals might be a more natural fit.
More compelling is a new project by young artist Martha Tuttle, who has cleared 8 acres of tall grass (near Lin’s “Wave Field”) to present a quietly persuasive sculptural installation, titled “a stone that thinks of Enceladus.” (The title refers to an ice-covered moon of Saturn with a highly reflective surface.)
Tuttle has gathered boulders from Storm King’s property, most of them about knee-height, and placed them around the clearing with a contrapuntal casualness; resting on each boulder are delicate sculptures of rocks, crafted in the artist’s studio from milky glass or solid marble and arranged with the same tossed-off elegance as the boulders themselves. These humble cairns conjoin “real” and “artificial” stones, not to mention the lichens growing on the boulders’ surfaces and the grass beneath your feet into a poem of vibrant matter.
At one point here I crouched down in the grass to inspect one of Tuttle’s boulders, its beige surface speckled with green-gray algae that rhymed with the blue-gray tint of a glass stone — and rhymed too, I suppose, with the surgical mask I sported over my nose and mouth. Her installation, when it was commissioned last year, would have already resounded in a time of climate emergency, when the distinction between “natural” and “man-made” things had begun to lose its sense. It has just as much poignancy in these days of pandemic, when a microscopic pathogen has as much power as humans do to design our environments and shape our world.
If you go….
Storm King Art Center
>> What: Sculpture park in Cornwall, N.Y.
>> Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays (closed Tuesdays). Timed-entry tickets are required and can be purchased in advance. Open through Nov. 9.
>> Cost: Admission ranges from $20 for one person with vehicle to $84 for six people with vehicle, parking included.
>> Information: Call 845-534-3115 or visit stormking.org.