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Sculpture Park-ing

Sculpture parks are tricky places, trickier than you might think. If you have ever hung art in your own home, or placed garden objects in your own yard – carefully, that is, thoughtfully, intentionally – then you have a very miniscule inkling of what it must be like to populate a park. How does one place a two-ton object? A little to the left, I think. How does one visualize the art object in its site before placement? In a dream, maybe.

Oh, sure, there are computer-generated CAD renderings and even 3-D mockups, but it is nearly impossible to see the actual, as opposed to virtual, thing in its setting, unless and until it is there. And once it is there, it is there, on a poured base bolted into place. Sometimes, depending on its size, the depth of the moorings can penetrate various strata below the earth’s surface. The thing that is mystifying to me, beyond the physical maneuverings to seat the work, is that some works are situated just so perfectly, while others are not – quite the opposite, really. How can some be so right and others so wrong?

Storm King Art Center gets it right more often than not, having had its origins in display – this is still visible in the smaller works that are pedestalled and grouped around the museum building as a kind of bow to garden art (really good garden art, that is). But venture beyond the patio and the near planting beds and go out into the fields and meadows; that is where the relationships occur. Here, the Storm King team are masters of the setting and the pairing of art and site.

The only sculpture parks other than Storm King that I have seen come close to achieving this kind of parity are The Fields Sculpture Park, in Ghent, N.Y., and Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, in University Park, Ill. All three of these mentioned have interesting land: mountainous terrain, undulating rural fields and prairie swales, respectively. Perhaps the choice of natural landscapes make the difference, but that isn’t the full story.

deCordova Sculpture Park, in Lincoln, Mass., has a perfectly fine site with rolling woodlands and lawns. It is possible that size does matter in these matters. Whereas deCordova has 35 acres, The Fields has 60, Nathan Manilow has 100 and Storm King tops off with 500 acres. The idea that deCordova manages pretty well in placing its works in a smallish-for-a-park space, and the fact that they are mostly temporary installations, gives extra points to their siting team. Impermanence is more challenging in getting it right; if it is not for posterity, endless design and planning would make less sense.

So, that being said, and with my not knowing which works are from the permanent collection or on loan, there are some worth noting at the deCordova as they relate to  art-and-site merging. Bob Boemig’s Sisters is surprising because it has the appearance of so many steel works that have come out of Abstraction and Minimalism, but these are rendered as elliptical planters filled with soil and myrtle. Resembling large hoop earrings with a Chia pet sensibility, they sometimes disappear into the landscape and then re-emerge, giving them more dimensionality than they really have. The interlocking geometric shapes, if not integrated with the land, might look something like the Olympics symbol. But their tilt, and the fact that they are on a steep slope, could almost lead one to believe that they grew there as freaks of nature/nurture. Conjuring images of old wagon-wheel rims lost in history and reclaimed by the site, they reveal a sense of time as well as timelessness.

Okay, I am a sucker for train tracks, and George Greenamyer’s Mass Art Vehicle sits  atop a large rock outcropping, almost lurking behind some tall bushy growth. Its setting is a sort of miniature version of the very same landscapes that train tracks always seem to inhabit: rocky, nearly impenetrable mountainsides; high grasses alongside the railbeds; slightly hidden from plain sight; and the tracks disappearing – in this case, abruptly – into the horizon. Aside from the strangely militaristic, hard-edged toy that this object is, it peeks out from its lofty perch like a cupola on a rooftop. There is something both medieval and eternal about it.

Then, if you can find it, Ronald Gonzales’ Cones is a work nestled in a grove of hemlocks, and is surrounded by nature. In fact, what surrounds the piece is pretty much the stuff that it is made of. About a dozen figures stand in some sort of unified group. They are made up of pine cones attached to steel armatures. There is a circular bed of cones on the ground below them. Are they decomposing as they lose their physical parts to the elements and time? Or are they regenerating, evolving, restructuring from the natural materials around them? The idea seems to be about death and decay. The group of figures is so reminiscent of nail fetishes, a type of African sculpture called Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). The low-hanging branches of the hemlocks are almost a camouflage for the figures; both have limbs that are so similar. That these figures stand in a cluster, like the encircling trees; that they are built of the same materials; that they are at the mercy of the natural environment – here exists the place where art and site become one.

There are some sculpture parks that just don’t get the point of the exercise: that the works and the landscape should derive a mutually beneficial association. And I will add to that that the two elements should enhance each other to the point of inevitability, meaning that there could be no other arrangement for this art and this site, no other place could provide a more perfect union. I have witnessed this convergence of mind over matter, but its frequency is not commonplace. I have visited nearly two dozen parks and gardens and, while some are just outdoor display spaces, others are real integrations of object and site. Admittedly, it is difficult to achieve – there is an art to it. An art park should be artful, right? Artfully arranged, besides having good art.

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Sculpture Garden, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and its grounds are a facsimile of the Acropolis of Athens: a flat-topped mini-mountain with temples sprouting forth. The museum building sits astride a rocky promontory named Faire Mount, once topped by an earthen-walled reservoir that held the city’s water supply; aptly called the “Parthenon on the Parkway,” the Greek-inspired structure and its site offer dramatic bird’s-eye views – one side looks down on the Champs-Elysees-style Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and from the opposite side, the flowing waters, elegant dam and sinuous valley of the Schuylkill. Over the past two years, in a project almost as massive an undertaking as the original 1815 reservoir, there has been an excavation of parts of the bluff for a parking facility and an accompanying designed reuse of the ground above, actually a green roof, for a sculpture garden. The opening for this welcome open-air addition was in September, but we explored it on a quieter day.

First, it feels odd to be inhabiting space on the grounds (formerly a rock and grass cliff face) where you couldn’t go before – so, it is like visiting unknown territory surrounded by the familiar. The landscape plan, by Olin, utilizes the changes in grade to create terraces and garden rooms (but with views both in and out, above and below and, as we’ll see, through). The Museum itself calls this a “gallery without walls,” but many of the terraces do have walls, only they are glass. Despite the amount of plate glass a city-dweller passes by every day, not much of it is freestanding, so there is something strange about its presence in the landscape, generally, and its use as exterior fencing, specifically. However, the surreality aside, using glass as a frame and railing around the terrace edges has the dual ability of being not only a transparent, discrete and nondisruptive border but also a palpable design presence in the greater environment – there, and yet not there. Of course, the plantings are new, so the “garden” part seems sparse and small in relation to the open space, which is magnified even more by the elevation of the site, creating a kind of natural pedestal for the artwork and for the viewer. The vistas out to the Schuylkill, its west bank rolling hills, the tree-lined parkway and its background of Fairmount Park, and the increasing density of high rises as the view heads east – all is hugely entertaining and encompassing. The question is: Can the sculpture garden compete in such a setting?

The inaugural exhibition in the garden is of stone works by Isamu Noguchi, whose pieces are diverse enough to make one think that this might be a group show – except that the sensibility is familiar in all. One particularly fortuitous pairing is of a Brancusi-like column standing against a backdrop of The Philadelphian apartments – both having a sameness in patterning and color, with their grey and white striping, the one undulating totemic form and the other massive edifice, in a stand-off conversation across the Parkway.

In answer to the question posed above – yes, the sculpture garden can compete. This is a bit of the Tuileries with a penthouse command, made up of contrasting colored gravel paths, green knolls, geometrically aligned trees and captivating captured scenic panoramas. Stylish in and of itself, it coexists with the surrounding beauty of the river as well as the nearby built environment, blending the two and mixing them up in an unfolding of defined spaces with both hard and soft edges and plenty of vantage points – for the garden rooms themselves, for the larger environment and for the sculptures that will inhabit the lofty perches created.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Nature/Nurture, Philly-centric