New York’s Hudson Valley Is Still a Center for Larger than Life Art |

New York’s Hudson Valley Is Still a Center for Larger than Life Art

If you stand on the porch of Olana, an ornate, ersatz-Persian palace atop a hill near Hudson, New York, you can gaze across the flat gray width of the Hudson River to the purple silhouettes of the Catskill Mountains behind. Views such as that are the reason that painter Frederick North Church built the home/studio in 1872—and his paintings of those views are the reason he had the money to pay for it. And it’s just one reason for art-lovers to visit the Hudson Valley today.

In the mid-19th century, the Hudson River School of painting had emerged as America’s first internationally important art movement, and Church was its leading exemplar. Though the loose assortment of artists had obvious roots in European landscape painting, these Americans had transformed that tradition by shifting the emphasis from cultivated fields to untamed wilderness and by filling the canvases with a luminous light that anticipated the French Impressionists. Their canvases were an embodiment and celebration of the Western Hemisphere’s expansive landscapes and aspirations.

As those ambitions grew, so did the size of their pictures. Soon galleries would set up small bleachers so viewers could sit and gaze at the enormous paintings as if anticipating the movies that would be invented half a century later. Though many of the studios and galleries remained in Manhattan, upstate New York gave the artists nearby access to wilderness and the larger studios. 

Thomas Cole, the movement’s pioneer and Church’s mentor, had bought a home/studio on the river’s west bank as early as 1825, and Church built Olana directly across on the east bank in 1872. Today both houses are open to the public, and an hour-long walking trail connects them across a bridge. 

At the end of the 20th century, the art world once again turned its eyes to the Hudson Valley, for the same reasons that Church and Cole had: open spaces and proximity to Manhattan. The Storm King Art Center, in New Windsor on the west bank, was a sleepy museum till it started buying the increasingly enormous works created by such sculptors as Alexander Calder. 

In 1975, when the Whitney Art Museum was going to disassemble five large works by Mark Di Suvero it didn’t have room to store, Storm King offered them a home. The sculptures, whose boldly painted girders suggested unfinished skyscrapers or ships, had a whole new resonance when isolated on a grassy hilltop instead of crowded inside a museum. You could see one in the distance and feel it grow larger and more distinct as you approached.

The 500-acre park soon became the logical destination for monumental sculptures by Calder, Kenneth Snelson and Alexander Liberman. Menashe Kadishman’s gravity-defying “Suspended” had one large steel box hanging precariously from another—daring the viewer to walk under it. The latest installation, Martin Puryear’s “Lookout,” resembles a spaceship shaped like a giant sweet potato and dotted with portholes. My favorite, though, is Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific “Storm King Wall,” a New England stone wall that curves like a snake around existing trees, disappears into a river and emerges on the other side.

Hudson Valley

Size is also what prompted the longtime Dia gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood to open an outpost in Beacon, New York, across the river and a little north from Storm King. Needing space to accommodate massive work by such sculptors as Richard Serra and Michael Heizer, the Dia Art Foundation bought an abandoned Nabisco box-printing factory and transformed it into a destination museum for contemporary art. 

The six monumental works by Serra are the heart of the collection. Serra, who died in March, had been a minor sculptor until he discovered the psychosensory impact of size in 1970. His work at Dia: Beacon is as high as 13 feet, made in shipyards from rolled steel weathered with dark-brown waves of rust and curved at ominous angles that loom over the viewer. The material is stable; its angles are not. The surfaces are industrial but weirdly beautiful. As you walk around and into these spiraling or elliptical sculptures, you get the same sense of fear and awe one gets in deep canyons or tall cathedrals. The body reacts as much as the mind.

Hudson Valley

Other visual-art destinations are nearby. A terrific example of architect Frank Gehry’s wave-like sheets of silver steel—seemingly ready to fly apart—is his performing arts center at Bard College. Harvey Fite, a Bard art professor, bought a bluestone quarry in Saugerties and turned it into an idiosyncratic sculpture garden called Opus 40. Steve Heller, the owner of Fabulous Furniture in Boiceville, creates not only free-form wooden tables but also whimsical robots and spaceships from auto parts and household appliances.

Church considered Olana his greatest work—and he may have been right, for it combines architecture, landscaping and interior design into an eccentric but never boring whole. The winding driveway and trails lead to a different stunning view at every turn. The interior is full of Church’s original furniture, easels and sketches, though no major paintings. 

That’s the irony: There are no major collections of Hudson River School paintings in the valley itself. The Albany Museum of History & Art, just north of the valley, has a large gallery of the work—plentiful in quantity, middling in quality. The best collection is actually the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, though major paintings by Church and his closest rival, Albert Bierstadt, can be found in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and D.C.’s American Art Museum.

There are other reasons to visit the Hudson Valley. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home and museum are filled with the kind of original, telling artifacts that separate the best museums from mere audio-visual venues. A New York State Park named Walk Over the Hudson allows you to do just that. Musical history is available in nearby Woodstock, where the festival site, the Big Pink house, Bearsville Theater and the village itself can still be found. But the valley’s biggest lure has to be monumental art created and exhibited there.

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