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ART IN THE WOODS
by Walter Robinson
 
It turns out I have a soft spot for art in the woods. I donít mean those big sculptures plopped down on the lawn, like at your typical sculpture park, all nice and bucolic but basically boring. I mean art really hidden away among the shrubs and the trees. I discovered this only recently, on a stultifyingly hot day, during a trip to 17-acre plot on Quantuck Bay in Quioque, N.Y., owned by Jerome Stern, an 84-year-old art collector who is also a trustee of the New Museum, a patron of the Israel Museum and on the photo committee at the Guggenheim Museum.

As it happens, these works in the woods have an especially appealing relationship to their verdant sites. Take the bronze sculpture of a woman by the Swedish artist Ann-Sofi Siden (b. 1962), a self-portrait cast of the artist squatting with her pants around her ankles, peeing onto the ground. Hidden in a natural nook formed by some bushes, itís a peculiarly feminist version of the ubiquitous fountain, now revealed as a comic symbol of masculine vanity, as well as a sardonic comment on the all-too-frequent sight of men urinating in public.

The gay artist (according to the New York Blade) is also commenting on artistic ego in general, aggressively "marking her territory" with her scent as a wild animal will. In this respect, Sidenís sculpture bears a tangential relationship to another work on the property, a life-sized aluminum statue of a giant mastiff by the Paris-based Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping (b. 1954). The dog lifts one leg to relieve itself, creating a silvery puddle in the shape of the United States. Sidenís work was originally commissioned for the park at a castle in Sweden.

The primal theme of relieving oneself in the bushes is also referenced by another work in the collection, this one by the mysterious Duchampian artist David Hammons (b. 1943). A simple urinal strapped to the trunk of a pine tree, the work looks rather like a bit of human detritus that was somehow turned into an "assisted readymade," probably through the intervention of a gang of amorous teenagers. It is a noble addition to the anti-art heritage of R. Mutt.

As an Okie, I can testify personally to a special kind of cultural resonance that attends to finding such traces of trash civilization in the middle of otherwise pristine nature. Hammonsí urinal conjures up exactly those woodland dumps where hillbillies dispose of their old bedsprings and washing machines, or where frat boys have held their drunken rendezvous. Ecologically speaking, itís the Hudson River School turned on its 21st-century head.

A work by the young New York artist Nate Loman (b. 1979) returns a sense of the pastoral to the verdant grove, though in an ironical way. Loman has had his own gravestone crafted, and it sits in a small shaded clearing under the trees. Cemeteries are a primordial sculpture site, of course, as death is a primordial theme. But Lomanís sensibility can hardly be called somber -- he is one of the New York art youthquakeís more animated nihilists -- and so his gravestone is also a joke. "Here lies Nate Loman," it reads. "Victim of identity theft." Itís funny that such a classical granite marker of death can be reformulated into such an upside-down comment on the now au courant memes of artistic originality and influence.

Similarly meditative, though in a nondenominational way, is an installation of a host of ochre-colored rectangular panels attached to the trunks of pine trees, several feet above the forest floor, which is covered by a dense layer of slim pine needles. Made by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman (b. 1932), who lives and works in Tel Aviv and exhibited in the Israel pavilion at the 1978 Venice Biennale, the piece was originally made for a 1970 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. Then the golden panels were attached to trees in Central Park, an event that preceded Jean-Claude and Christoís Gates by more than 30 years -- in both conception and the resulting outcry from park preservationists.

Now known for expressionistic sculptures cut by torch from sheet steel (his Shalekhet, a collection of hundreds of coin-like metal faces strewn upon the floor like "fallen leaves," is a favorite attraction at the Jewish Museum, Berlin), Kadishman was a Minimalist in the 1960s and Ď70s, bringing a bit of illusionism to his blocky sculptures by suspending them in mid-air on sheets of glass. Here, the ochre panels manage to forge an uncanny bond between warm and breathing nature and a cold and industrial esthetic.

But the big surprise here is a three-story-tall, 10,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, surrounded by trees and more-or-less invisible to passersby in the summer. A simple steel structure covered with tan corrugated metal, with textured concrete floors, an asymmetrical concrete plaza and steel walkways and terraces, the building was designed by the Romanian artist Serge Spitzer (b. 1951) in a straightforward and cost-effective way. As a collector, Stern buys works from Spitzer, and as a friend, Spitzer gives Stern advice on possible acquisitions and their display.

This institution is hidden among the traditional sites of seaside arts-and-crafts by being given the name artbarn -- one word, no capital -- as if it is a weekend-afternoon craft festival rather than a serious collecting institution. The name serves as a kind of camouflage, too, as the place isnít open to the public but rather can be visited by appointment only.

In any case, the friendship between the artist and the collector has resulted in a fairly eclectic holding, where one artistís important works can brush up against the oddball output of several others, and where celebrated artists must maintain their dignity in the face of esthetic challenges from young unknowns. Among the works in the collection is a perforated bench by the late New York artist Scott Burton, sitting out in the sun on the plaza, and a wall sculpture by Frederick Kiesler, at last hung properly in a stairwell.

Inside the nicely air-cooled space is a random assortment of important sculptures and photographs -- many black-and-white photographs of John Coplansí sculptural explorations of his own body, Joseph Beuysí felt suit and other important multiples, a large color photo of Mariko Mori as a cyborg-mermaid at a Japanese indoor water park, and a clump of early works by Yayoi Kusama, including the mannequin of a child dotted with red like a Fauvist with the measles.

The artist Christoph BŁchel, celebrated for massive agglomerations of shredded mechanical trash, is here represented by a video of costumed Iranian marchers performing a sort of half-time show, in which Islam conquers the U.S., Israel and Nazism via emblems formed by marching soldiers. Itís not unlike something Busby Berkley might have designed. Among the photographic works on view is a triptych by Spitzer himself of a 1976 performance called "uniform color mixing," in which the artist tosses a disk -- blue, red and yellow -- into the bright blue sky. The color is the limit of knowledge, Spitzer says.

As the eminence grise of artbarn, Serge accepts no payment for his efforts but is able to include several of his impressive works on the grounds. Most notable is Tree Work from 1991, for which the artist devised a large and gestural steel structure that follows the shape of a large fir tree that was growing out on the lawn, not too far from the sound. Spitzerís vaguely cone-shaped construction of I-beams was placed upside-down and adjacent to the actual tree, as if it were some kind of funhouse mirror. And indeed, it works exceptionally well, the balance of the two forms, the natural with the technological. They speak to each other, at least in the formalist terms of modern sculpture (if not the ecological language of trees).

Spitzer has two other installations in the woods. One is a path made of gray stones, a bit of fancy dressing for the forest, which has otherwise only been casually touched. But the stones give way to colored stone-like elements made of terracotta that shine and glow and become covetable objects rather than mere gravel. "Itís about infection and molecular structure," said Spitzer. Noticing the light effects hitting the path and seeming to dissolve it into areas of reflection and light, he said, "It looks like the Fata Morgana," a Shakespearean mirage of magical power.

By contrast, Spitzer has another sculpture in the woods that brings the steel-worker right into the forest, taking a single 10-inch-tall beam measuring 1,200 feet long, and miraculously twisting it around a pair of trees and stacking it up on itself, so that the trees become contained within a circular steel wall. Here and there rubber pads have been inserted between the rails, so a slotted view of the interior can be had, but otherwise the sculpture provides an open tomb for the trees. Though they can be reached, they cannot be touched at ground level, they can only grow up and out of their circular prison.

"Every artist should adopt a collector," says Spitzer. "Artists should take time to guide and encourage one person in the world of creative arts." Typically, Serge says, the artist is the helpless one, and looks for a collector who can take care of him or her. Such an arrangement, Spitzer says, is "too simplistic" and "all about the purchase."

Working with a collector, teaching him or her, is a never-ending project, Spitzer says. "The most difficult thing is to say no." Jerome Stern agrees, though he takes a slightly different view. "Every collector needs to take an artist under his wing!" The artbarn has many visitors, but only by appointment. Contact decontext@gmail.com


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.