Going Up the Country: The Weekend at Bard, the Glass House, Storm King

  • “At Bard,” Tom Eccles announced to his dinner guests on Friday night, “you can think.” The executive director of the college’s Center for Curatorial Studies had preceded this by referring to the college’s Annandale-on-Hudson campus being far–around two hours by car—from the “hothouse” of New York, but the folks who’d come up for the opening of the two annual summer shows at CCS’s Hessel Museum were in need of a reprieve not so much from Manhattan, but from the ever-more-wearying global art circuit, which had just whisked them from Hong Kong to Venice to Basel. Earlier, standing before the opening’s requisite wine and crudités table, Tanya Bonakdar Galley director Ethan Sklar described waking up in his Manhattan apartment with that terrifying feeling of not knowing where in the world he was. Artadia director Carolyn Ramo’s flight from Venice had landed the night before. Mr. Eccles himself was coming off not only the European grand tour, but the sprawling Paul McCarthy show he’d co-organized at the Park Avenue Armory, and its accompanying festivities, and the battering it had taken in The New York Post.

    Mr. Eccles’s comment should have sounded an entirely auspicious note on which to begin The Observer‘s whistle-stop tour of art venues outside the city—in the calm country, with chirping cicadas as background music, one can finally, and at one’s leisure, think—except that, like many things at the theoretically-inclined CCS, it required a footnote: at Bard, in fact, you have to think. Exhibitions here tend to be on the cerebral side, and the two that opened on Friday are no exception.

    The headliner is “Once again the world is flat,” a quirky survey of the work of Haim Steinbach, the Israeli-born, New York-based artist who became known in the 1980s for his shelf-based installations. On a simple laminated shelf he arranges store-bought items, presenting the arrangement as an artwork. There are only two of Mr. Steinbach’s classic shelf pieces here, one owned by the Hessel Foundation, but that one’s a real classic—his very first shelf piece, from 1975. There are also some larger, more complex installation pieces, meticulously recreated here, that he showed at Artists Space in 1979. As with other artists who have done shows here, Mr. Steinbach was given full access to Bard benefactor Marieluise Hessel’s sizable collection, and he’s picked out and displayed, alongside his own work, interestingly complementary artworks by John Ahearn, Joseph Kosuth, Sophie Calle, Lorna Simpson and many, many others. An especially clever juxtaposition is Neil Jenney’s painting of a wood chopper next to a Steinbach construction featuring an Ajax container perched atop a support made from jutting tree branches.

    You can talk yourself blue in the face about Mr. Steinbach’s work critiquing consumerism, or subverting product display, but for him, refreshingly, his art is also highly anecdotal: each and every element of each and every piece tells a story. He could be overheard taking a group through during the opening, pointing to red-rimmed Bento boxes he’d eaten from on a trip to Japan, a teddy bear from a recreated piece that had had to be replaced, a shoe he’d found in a thrift shop.

    One of the most striking pieces here is a set of circular shelves holding a version of a piece Mr. Steinbach originally made in 1992 from items in the personal collection of Belgian curator Jan Hoet. Here, old soap and detergent boxes, jewelry boxes, cigarette cases, jam jars, miniature silverware, porcelain figurine of a bride and groom, a Goofy snow globe, a toy telephone, a toy dinosaur—are arranged into idiosyncratic taxonomies. Nearby is the show’s most impressive room, where a set of massive metal shelving units are stocked with non-art objects, things like a plastic jack-o’-lantern, flashlights, a fedora, a hot pink velvet box in the shape of lips, a funky sequined pair of shoes, a lamp in the shape of praying hands, a colander sprouting screws. Behind these shelves, and rising above them, is scaffolding stocked with artworks—Scott Burton chairs, Allan McCollum vases, a Robert Morris felt piece, Donald Judd chairs. Drawing out resonances between the stuff of the gallery and the stuff of the garage sale, Mr. Steinbach invites us to ruminate on what, precisely, art is.

    The Steinbach exhibition, co-curated by Mr. Eccles and Johanna Burton, may be the cleverest one CCS has ever put on—his work is ideally suited to a museum dedicated to research on exhibition practices, since what he does has always been one part curating. And yet he doesn’t see it that way, exactly. His artistic sensibility is as ludic as it is serious. In an essay in the show’s accompanying pamphlet, he’s quoted saying “I do not ‘curate’ objects, but put them into play.” Leveling the distinctions between art and non-art, he’s made of the Hessel Museum’s galleries one giant shelf.

    Next door is an exhibition of videos and installations from rising star Helen Marten, the British artist’s first in the U.S. and an import from the Kunsthalle Zurich (where Mr. Steinbach’s show will travel next, in a kind of de facto exchange program). Ms. Marten has some of the same sensibilities as Mr. Steinbach, in terms of her use of found objects like olive oil bottles, walnuts and rolled up socks. You might call them two artists tangling with the legacy of Duchamp. But Ms. Marden’s approach to her material is far more cerebral than Mr. Steinbach’s —she makes him look aestheticizing by contrast. Her sense of cool detachment seems beyond her years; it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

    After the opening, the guests, in the manner of passage from wedding ceremony to reception, crossed a wide, buggy lawn to the stately Blithewood Manor, aka Bard’s economics building. There was the obligatory pause to take in the spectacular views over the Hudson River, the inspiration for many an Instagram photo. In the fading sunlight, the views were more the smokey chiaroscuro of Chinese landscape painting than Hudson River School. Later, while Haim Steinbach gave a speech thanking everyone involved with his exhibition, a lone bird snickered away, putting everything into perspective.

    The following afternoon was the Philip Johnson Glass House’s annual summer fête, where guests were free to wander the verdant 49-acre campus and architectural attractions in New Canaan, Conn., normally open only to tour groups. According to architecture critic Michael Sorkin, Johnson “became the austere apostle of modern architecture—or rather the modern apostle of austere architecture,” when he began living in his transparent home. Austere, however, is the last word anyone would use to describe the party. Sparkling Chandon wine flowed into plastic flutes, Pimm’s cups were poured and revelers, decked out in lavender polos, bubblegum frocks, and chartreuse jackets paired with coral chinos, popped against the bright green grass like so many Easter eggs.

    As the Glass House isn’t the type of landmark to sully a pristine campus with a parking lot, Porsches and BMWs were deposited a croquet shot farther down the road. A small armada of red and black Mini Coopers, complete with racing stripes, shuttled the seersucker-suited and straw-hatted from lot to party. There, they were confronted by Da Monsta, the angular structure originally used as a visitor center and, for the moment, occupied by artworks by E.V. Day.

    Near the building’s entrance, Ms. Day stood out for her choice of an all-black, gothic ensemble accented by a Giuseppe Zanotti necklace that looked as though it was fashioned from metal chains and machine gun cartridges. Charged with creating Da Monsta’s inaugural exhibition, she’d stretched rope spider webs across its angular black and red façade and installed within a “purring chamber” that hums with recordings of her cat.

    “Philip Johnson thought of it almost as a pet, not just a building but a creature,” said Ms. Day, gesticulating with gold-painted fingernails.

    Down the hill at the Glass House itself was Tauba Auerbach, turning heads in a wine-colored dress and neon green necklace, both of which she’d made herself. She’d been commissioned to create the House’s second “sculpture in residence” (the first was by Ken Price), and had delivered a small, undulating, sculpture, vaguely in the shape of the state of Idaho, made entirely of sand held together with a touch of resin. It stands on a glass coffee table in place of a plaster Giacometti sculpture that mysteriously disappeared in the 1960s when it was sent to the artist’s studio for repairs.

    “I kind of like an assignment,” said Ms. Auerbach of creating a site-specific piece. She was inspired by fulgurite, the glass produced when lightening strikes sand. The sculpture, she said, is “a jumping off point for a new series.”

    Through the crystal clear walls, one could see croquet mallets leaned idly against the Brick House across the lawn, an opaque counterpart to the Glass House. Henry Urbach, who was named director of the Glass House last February, said he planned to play later on, despite lack of practice. “Even though I live in Connecticut, it’s not part of my daily life.”

    The game wouldn’t begin until after the picnic lunches had been devoured. A few wasps circling the stacks of woven baskets didn’t deter guests from braving the spacious white tent, which also housed artwork up for silent auction. While the $25,000 VIP tickets guaranteed 10 seats (along with two signed Hiroshi Sugimoto prints), most patrons eschewed seating altogether and lounged on the blankets and pillows strewn on the lawn. They carried their “just-dug” potato salad with lovage aioli, fried chicken and chilled asparagus salad out to the edge of the turquoise swimming pool, into the shade behind the Glass House or uphill to the painting gallery modeled on Agamemnon’s tomb, inside of which one could find Johnson’s collection of Salles, Schnabels, Stellas and Rauschenbergs.

    The party drew to a close in the late afternoon, sending a stream of loafers and wingtips up to the cars or down to the train station for the 4:27 p.m. to Grand Central. Anyone craving more time in the scenic, see-through surroundings might consider getting married: soon the Glass House will offer weddings, 50-person capacity, for $10,000 to $15,000. No stone throwing allowed.

    An hour’s drive later, at the annual Summer Solstice gala at Storm King Art Center, the 500-acre sculpture park near Bear Mountain, came a reminder—paging Bard Center for Curatorial Studies!—that curating is now equally the province of foodies. “Curation and artistry” was how New York restaurateur Peter Hoffman (Savoy, Back Forty, Back Forty West) described his collaboration on the evening’s meal with Shelley Boris, creative director and executive chef of Fresh Company, the catering concern that runs the Storm King Cafe. The two met, Mr. Hoffman recalled, back in 1980, when they “curated”—there was the word again!—the cheeses at Dean and Deluca in Soho.

    How elaborate was this curation and artistry? Elaborate indeed, starting with a full suite of hors d’oeuvres intended to evoke the surrounding landscape, from the meadow (a platter of cheeses and vegetables), to the seaside (seafood, seaweed), from Moodna Creek, which runs through Storm King (smoked trout) to the deepest forest (pine resin soup, mushroom venison, potato chips mimicking wild fungi). And that was nothing compared to the salad (greens, watercress, nasturtiums, berries, herbs, egg yolk cream, beets, gelee of chamomile, salad burnet, breadstick), which Ms. Boris devised as a dished Ab-Ex painting in gastronomic conversation with Storm King’s signature suite of soaring Mark di Suvero sculptures.

    Ultimately, the cuisine was very much grounded in the art, mostly in the temporary exhibition of Thomas Houseago sculptures that officially opened last month, titled “As I Walked Out One Morning,” after a line in a Bob Dylan song. Using that title as a jumping off point, the chefs embarked on “a meal for right now, for this moment.” Mr. Houseago’s sculptures—25 of them displayed both on Storm King’s grounds and in its indoor exhibition space—look terrific here. The ones outside are the show-stealers—larger than life figures whose musculature bears the imprint of Mr. Houseago’s hands, and whose bodies sprout the kinds of metal supports common from concrete constructions, giving them something of the aura of fetish figures. At Storm King, it appears for all the world as though a group of giants have decided to gather in a field for some mysterious reason or another. One lounges on his back on the ground. One stands up straight. Another strikes a warrior pose that in this bucolic setting smacks more of yoga than battle. Still another strides forward. There’s a bronze owl the height of a man with a greenish patina that is new for Mr. Houseago and meant as an homage to David Smith, whose sculptures, across the lawn, have long been fixtures of Storm King’s collection. There are other resonances with the collection. Mr. Houseago often sculpts his figures supported against a plank, such that one side of the completed work consists of a series of flat planar surfaces. At Storm King, these face, and pick up on, the broad planes of a large Calder stabile in the field below. And the reclining figure picks up on Josef Pillhofer’s Reclining Man from 1964.

    The Storm King show is Mr. Houseago’s first extensive exhibition in the U.S., outside of a few shows at Los Angeles galleries. Many  on the East Coast are familiar with his work mainly from the 2010 Whitney Biennial (which had one sculpture) and, more recently, from art fairs. (Ironically for a U.K.-born artist who long ago moved to Los Angeles, Mr. Houseago may be better known in Europe these days: Hauser & Wirth gallery had a sizable exhibition in London a few months ago; Gagosian has one now in Rome.) If you’ve seen them at fairs, the Storm King display will make you want to banish that experience from your memory. These sculptures, with their brooding, slightly menacing presence are about as appropriate at fairs as Zeus would be at a shopping mall. At Storm King, by contrast, the spectacular landscape allows them room to breathe. Even indoors the smaller sculptures make sense. A crouching figure, with the park’s rolling hills visible out a door behind it, evokes the yeti, having wandered in, a little bewildered, a little on guard.

    One tends to associate sculpture parks with works that rise above the ground, and Storm King in particular with its magnificent suite of Mark di Suvero’s metal behemoths that, in silhouette, can look like calligraphy written on the sky. And yet, there are sculptures here that not only engage with the earth but appear to grow out of it: Richard Serra’s steel planks emerging from hillsides like buried spacecraft, Zhang Huan’s mind-blowing three-legged buddha, a titan risen to his chin from some subterranean realm, Maya Lin’s waves, crafted from the earth itself. For Storm King’s other temporary exhibition, Brooklyn-based artist David Brooks has drawn out this earth-bound aspect, by burying a 1970s Dynahoe tractor. (It’s visible through a set of grates in the grass—ask where it’s situated, or you’ll miss it.) His piece refers back to the very machines that, decades ago, transformed this land into an outdoor museum.

    And, of course, a setting for the most dramatic of meals. The Summer Solstice was illuminated by white Christmas tree lights strung in a circle over the tables and, increasingly over the course of the evening, by the super moon rising over the Hudson Highlands. It was set to an intermittent, gong-like music, produced by ever-tipsier diners striking an adjacent, hulking Mark di Suvero piece, Beethoven’s Quartet, with rubber mallets. (Storm King’s director and curator David Collens said he keeps a supply of mallets on hand—many of them are smashed to smithereens when people miss, and strike the wooden handle.) As things wound down, diners hopped into trams for a tour of the grounds. Under super moonlight, Roy Lichtenstein’s Mermaid, a surfboard-shaped piece, was an apparition hovering over a pond, the di Suveros on the horizon dark, hunched creatures.

    Over dinner, David Diamond, who’s on Storm King’s board of directors, recalled being at the park on its busiest day. Some 3,000 people visited, and it was tough to find a parking space, but, with people distributed over the 500-acre grounds, population density remained blissfully low. “The feeling we want to give,” he said, “is, you’re out wandering with these sculptures by yourself.” Contrast that kind of meditative experience with a weekend visit to MoMA, where you’re looking at Picassos with everyone and his football team. Though its seasonal attendance isn’t anywhere near that of a major museum’s annual door, things have been picking up recently at Storm King. In the last five years, visitorship has risen from 50,000 to last year’s 80,000. Yes, a Mark di Suvero exhibition on Governors Island in 2011 brought some needed attention, but one would like to think the sculpture park’s increased popularity also derives from from the possibility that in our current culture of distraction—for the art world, fairs and festivals; for all of us, phones and computers—the kind of engagement with art that Storm King facilitates is needed more than ever.

    Click the slide show above for a look at last weekend’s upstate events.