Where the Ocean Meets the Mountains
MOUNTAINVILLE, N.Y. — When the painter Winslow Homer left New York City for this Hudson Valley hamlet in the summer of 1878, he was reported to be “a little under the weather.” He was probably suffering a nervous breakdown. Whether the cause was a failed romance or despair at seeing the Gilded Age shatter around him, we don’t know. But he felt unmoored and clung to the natural world. The dozens of watercolors he did that summer were landscape-filled, with sloping pastures and wall-like mountains dwarfing human figures, idylls so perfect that they look unreal.
These mini-Catskills were conceived and built — molded is really the word — by the artist Maya Lin as a permanent installation at the Storm King Art Center, the 500-acre sculpture park that for almost half a century has been devoted to the display of outdoor works either designed for the location or too large or strange to fit comfortably elsewhere.
Ms. Lin’s ambitious piece, “Storm King Wavefield,” was commissioned by the center, and installation of it, under the supervision of David R. Collens, an artist and Storm King’s director, began two years ago. Set in a shallow, amphitheaterlike depression, once a gravel pit supplying material for the Thruway, it covers 11 acres. Its seven parallel rows of rolling, swelling peaks were inspired by the forms of midocean waves but echo the mountains and hills around them.
Marine references make sense in a part of the world carved and smoothed by glaciers, and terrestrial themes have been central to Ms. Lin’s art. “My affinity has always been toward sculpting the earth,” she wrote in her autobiographical book “Boundaries” (2000). “This impulse has shaped my entire body of work.”
That impulse was little remarked upon at the beginning of her career, when she was known mostly as a creator of urban commemorative sculptures, the first and most famous being her Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the Mall in Washington. Designed when she was still a graduate student in architecture at Yale, this long, low chevron of buffed black granite inscribed with names of the war dead was as much a monument to healing and humility as to heroics, and it became a flashpoint for American feelings about a divisive war and a disorienting era.
A few years later she completed the Civil Rights Memorial for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., again using black stone, this time a circular, tablelike slab of it incised with a historical timeline and rinsed by fountain water. In 1993 she returned to that format for her “Women’s Table” at Yale. Dedicated to the many women who had been underacknowledged presences at the university since the 19th century, the stone was carved with an open-ended spiral of numbers, each marking the enrollment of women in the university in a given year, with 1969 footnoted: “Yale admitted women into the undergraduate college.”
Initially, the political content of these works defined them. Now it is possible to step back and reassess them in light of Ms. Lin’s subsequent career, which took her out of the memorial business and in the more directly earth-sculpturing direction, a direction that, it turns out, she had been following all along.
Ms. Lin’s originating image for the Vietnam memorial, with its plain, straight slant like a Hudson Valley hillside, was of a blade slicing into and wounding the earth. The Civil Rights Memorial and “Women’s Table” were both based on a single natural process: the slow but certain shaping of earth, in the form of stone, by water. All three pieces were meant to interact organically, even sensually, with their viewers, inviting them to run their hands over stone, feel and hear the trickle of water.
In short, Ms. Lin was making a species of “earth art” from the start. And she has done so unequivocally since, most strikingly in a small series of “wave” pieces formed from piled and packed soil.
The first, “Wave Field,” installed at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1995, is a 10,000-square-foot grouping of earthen mounds, the highest six feet, their shapes based on those of scientifically measured ocean waves. The second piece, “Flutter,” covers 30,000 square feet of a plot near the Federal Courthouse in Miami; the undulant shapes, child-size at three to four feet high, were inspired by the textures made in sand by the action of waves.
Small working models for these works are on view, along with several indoors pieces, in the exhibition “Maya Lin: Bodies of Water” in the Storm King Art Center Museum.
The “Storm King Wavefield” is the third and last of the series and by far the largest at 240,000 square feet, with heights of 15 feet. Like its predecessors, it is made of natural materials: dirt and grass. Like any landscape, it is a work in progress. Vegetation is still coming in, drainage issues are in testing mode, and there are unruly variables: woodchucks have begun converting one wave into an apartment complex.
But the piece is already a classic. It has the gravity of Ms. Lin’s commemorative sculptures and the sociability of the earlier “wave” pieces, which lent themselves to picnics, play and privacy. And, more immediately than almost any of her other outdoor projects, it is inextricable from nature, which is where, as I say, all her art starts.
Born in 1959, Ms. Lin was raised in rural Ohio, and as a child visited the great Serpent Mound and other American Indian earthworks in the Midwest. Through her father, a ceramicist who grew up in a Japanese-style house in China, she developed an affinity for the nature-saturated, but also nature-framing, aesthetic embodied in the Zen rock-and-sand garden, and in the Chinese ink-and-brush landscape, with its misted and surreally scaled vistas.
As a distillation of nature, the Zen garden is highly controlled: you view it from a fixed point and from a distance; you don’t physically enter it. In that sense, it is an image rather than an environment. By contrast, the “Storm King Wavefield” is embracingly environmental.
Seen from a slight elevation, it complements its hilly setting but interrupts it. (There is, after all, something a little freakish about these slinky, reptilian swellings in the ground.) Because the work does both, it sharpens your eye to existing harmonies and asymmetries otherwise overlooked.
When you descend into the troughs between the lines of waves, you may experience an entirely different set of sensations. You lose sight of all the other waves and of the larger prospects beyond them. Now you are down in the earth; it is rising over you, not you over it. You’re suddenly smaller, but also protected. Outside sounds are muffled, large-scale distractions reduced. The grand vision of hills upon hills, recession upon recession, drops away.
With it gone, you’re encouraged to concentrate on the details of what’s around you. That’s what, I suspect, all of Ms. Lin’s outdoor work is asking you to do: touch the stone, feel the water, smell the air, see how that patch of grass is different from another.
I suspect that the search for a similar kind of focus, and the relief from boundlessness it brings, is what Homer was after in Mountainville that summer. Whether he found it, I don’t know. He ended his life in a very different landscape, on the coast of Maine, where he produced painting after painting of waves crashing on rocks, water demolishing land, ceaseless natural destruction frozen in time.
In its own way, some of Ms. Lin’s most recent work has a similarly adamant, end-time character. I refer to the long-planned, multipart project she calls “The Last Memorial,” with which, over decades, she plans to monitor globally the corruption and demise of the natural environment that has been her subject and source.
What forms she will call on remain to be seen. But “Storm King Wavefield” is a different kind of work. Neither fatalistic nor utopian, commemorative nor history-free, natural nor artificial, unstable nor fixed, it is a puzzle to ponder but also — first things last — a soul-soothing place of retreat.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 9, 2009
An art review and headlines on Friday about a new installation by Maya Lin at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y., misidentified the region of New York State where the center is. It is in the Hudson Valley, not the Catskills.