Travel: A land fit for giants
Can't face the suffocating crush of New York's museums, but still want to see world-class art? Then head off for the tranquillity of the Appalachians and the Storm King Art Center, where huge sculptures dot the landscape Traveller's Guide
Many of the best-known names in post-war sculpture are represented in the extensive grounds - Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Richard Serra and Isamu Noguchi. But it is its secretive quality and strangely dream- like atmosphere that seems to affect visitors most.
America's largest outdoor sculpture park is hidden away, a little more than an hour from midtown Manhattan. Sixty miles north of New York City, the highways and malls give way to the craggy woodlands of the Appalachians, and it comes as a shock that there should be a wilderness of lakes and hiking trails so close to the city. From viewpoints on the ridge crests, the long skyscraper spine of Manhattan glitters in the distance, rising beyond the unbroken forest horizon like Oz. But the road to Storm King Art Center runs along one of the more dreamily secluded wooded valleys.
Steep escarpments hem it in on three sides and isolate it from the commuter belt, so that the approach to the park feels quiet and enclosed, until suddenly, startlingly, you are among the sculptures. The first impression of the place is that it seems to be a manic cross-country course for specially trained dinosaurs. Industrial-sized slabs of steel plate and clusters of thick bronzed tubes are dotted across the parkland between wooded ridges and mown lawns, like overgrown gates and water jumps.
The Jurassic Park atmosphere is compounded by some of the first truly dinosaur-sized works standing nearby - Alexander Calder's The Arch is a fan-tailed steel beast that lurks at the entrance, gracefully soaring 56ft above the arriving cars. In the distance there are tantalising glimpses of other spindly metal creatures away through the trees.
The sculpture park up here in the hills is the product of the beat-your- neighbours chic that has inspired some of the most spectacular and some of the most tasteless developments in the Hudson valley. Since 1800, the wealthy of New York have been trying to upstage each other by building extravagant estates around the picturesque gorge where the Hudson River slices through the Appalachians.
Many of the buildings are fantasies that take their cue from the castles of the Rhine. Once up here, New York's tough commercial barons liked to be seen as loftily romantic; Klinkersberg Mountain was briskly renamed Storm King. Then, in 1958, one lavish mock-chateau and its surrounding estate was bought up by Frank Ogden, a millionaire who had made his fortune manufacturing picture-hooks, but developed a taste for art without walls. He put the first 13 sculptures in the grounds of the chateau, liked how it looked, and conceived a sculpture park on the grandest imaginable scale.
With the money bequeathed by Ogden, the whole 500-acre estate has gradually become an enormous sculpted gallery. Earthmoving machinery has been used to shape the landscape into ridges and embankments and enclosed glades. Trees have been planted and the grass is mown in patterns and swirls. In amongst it all go the sculptures themselves.
The most striking thing about the collection is the sheer monumental bigness of many of the pieces. Some individual works are more than 70ft high and it is the sudden glimpses of these between the trees or a long way off across rolling fields that provide the real thrill of Storm King.
The place may be a lovingly created wilderness, but it takes itself as seriously as any art gallery. Clambering is only permitted on two designated pieces. A "Do Not Touch" rule is strictly applied to the rest. As a busload of children emptied out and its occupants began zigzagging at top speed among the exhibits, stern attendants were on hand to stalk after them, shouting: "Get awwff the sculptcha! Yes, you honey, you're gonna ruin that surface with them doity hands!"
They have been less successful in protecting Claes Oldenburg's Standing Mitt with Ball, a towering baseball glove cast in lead, holding a spacehopper- sized wooden ball. The ball is perforated with several perfectly circular holes, drilled by passing bees.
No refreshments are available at Storm King, which is almost unthinkable for an American public attraction. Mindful of the danger of death by starvation, the attendant at the gate glances into arriving cars and sternly advises visitors to "Ensure you have a full picnic". In fact, this lack of ice-cream stands and filled-bagel concessions adds greatly to the atmosphere of Storm King.
The guided tours can err on the side of earnestness. Because of the long distances between the sculptures, the party stands on a ridge and contemplates a work way off in the middle distance. We gaze across at the largest piece in the park, Mark di Suvero's menacing girder figure Pyramidian, which stands 70ft high in a distant field. Suspended from its apex is a plunging girder that could be a sword or a pendulum.
"It's like something by Poe," says one of the party brightly. Poe maybe, but the overall effect can be more like something by La La or Tinky Winky - the perfectly smoothed ridges of immaculate mown grass topped by weird flowerings of metal tubes and pipes has a surreal feel that can almost start you giggling.
Walking through the landscape is by far the best way to see Storm King. A buzzard perched on Menashe Kadishman's Suspended flaps off lazily through the spindly pines. Rabbits are attempting an impromptu warren under the Henry Moore. The pieces appear to change shape and dimension as you walk by them, and it seems that monumentalist abstract sculpture, which appears to be so urban and industrial, actually works perfectly in a wilderness. Coming here can be the ideal antidote to the fenced-in artworld of New York City.
It's therapy for anyone deterred from the latest Museum of Modern Art blockbuster by the block-long queues. Or tired of being herded with the crowd into the industrial-sized lifts at the Whitney Museum, emerging to see only the top half of the installations over a sea of heads.
Hidden away on the far corner of the estate is the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy's Wall That Went For A Walk. It's an ordinary dry-stone wall that runs along the edge of a wood - which, as you follow it, begins to weave, looping around the trees in tight meanders down a steep slope until it disappears into the lake at the bottom. On the far bank it can be seen again, emerging from the water and racing off over a distant ridge-crest, full of the motion and peculiar edgy energy that is the trade-mark of Storm King.
Storm King Art Center is at Mountainville, New York (001 914 534 3115), open daily from 1 April to 15 November, 11am to 5.30pm, and on Saturdays in June, July and August until 8pm (free after 5pm). Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and $3 for students
London-New York is the busiest and most competitive international air route in the world. This summer, fares are at their lowest ever in real terms. Although prices have risen this month, and will further increase between now and August, there is still some availability at low prices.
Between now and the end of July, a typical economy fare for a non-stop flight through discount agents is pounds 350 return, though students and travellers under 26 will be able to find cheaper prices.
From other UK airports, it is probably easier, and certainly cheaper, to find a connecting flight; the main airlines are Aer Lingus via Dublin, Air France via Paris, Icelandair via Reykjavik, KLM via Amsterdam and Lufthansa via Frankfurt or Munich.
More information from the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, 22- 23 Carnaby Street, London W1 (0171-437 8300)
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