Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood: 40 years of conversation between art, nature

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STOCKBRIDGE — The large hulking mass of welded chunks of steel shouldn't move, but it does.

Mark di Suvero's "For Lincoln," dips and sways in the breeze, its shiny steel arms outstretched, holding bits of broken, rusty chains.

"One of the impressive things is that di Suvero always uses these huge, metal, chunky form shapes that we immediately associate with heaviness and mass and yet it still moves," said Charles C. Davidson, senior director of the Maxwell Davidson Gallery.

The sculpture is one of 12 on display through Oct. 8 as part of "Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood: 40 YRS."

An abstract impressionist, di Suvero is known for his monumental A-frame girder works painted in a signature red.

"His work sometimes seems large, heavy and threatening, but this to me seems friendly, approachable visibly," said Maxwell Davidson III, co-curator and president of Maxwell Davidson Gallery. "You don't feel threatened by it. You feel drawn in by it."

And you should, he said, as the sculpture is an homage to Daniel Chester French's most famous work, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

The show, which opened with a reception and gala dinner on June 30, features works by several of the artists exhibited in the inaugural showcase in 1978, including George Rickey and Alexander Calder.

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But sculpture has always been part of the natural landscape at Chesterwood.

French sculpted the rolling green lawns, lush gardens and woodland trails into a outdoor gallery where he often placed his own work and that of his friends.

"There was a precedent of showing outdoor sculpture here and it's wonderful to continue that dialogue into the 21st century with sculpture that is being created today, be it figurative, abstract or kinetic. It all fits," Donna Hassler, executive director of Chesterwood, said during a tour exhibition prior to the opening reception.

Four decades ago, the inaugural sculpture show featured 23 artists working in or near the Berkshires. Sculptor George Rickey, then working in Chatham, N.Y., was one of those artists. He would exhibit in six more shows at Chesterwood prior to his death in 2002.

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"This show honors his memory," Hassler said.

Rickey, known for kinetic sculptures that exhibit "excentric motion," has two such works on display, "Open Trapezoids Excentric One Up One Down Variation V," and "Rectangle and Square, Unfolding and Gyratroy." Both pieces move in ways that suggest that the pieces should collide or create solid shapes, neither of which comes to fruition.

Other pieces in the show, such as John Van Alstine's "Sisyphean Holiday XXX," are static, but suggest movement.

Set on one of the woodland trails, his piece begins with a black circle, a small vessel — perched atop a carefully balanced stack of red and black slashes of steel — carries a smooth river stone. The work itself appears, as a whole, to be a work of Japanese calligraphy written on invisible parchment.

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"The name is more tongue in cheek than anything," Van Alstine said during the reception. "It's more of a self portrait. As an artist, you're pushing yourself up a hill, lifting yourself to your creative peak. You come back down again. It's a Sisyphean task, but, I don't see it as a punishment. It's the culmination of the process. As an artist, you embrace the process ... the process is the most important part."

Nearby, two biomorphic aluminum shapes, "Unfurling," and "Beehive Temple," by the late artist Mary Ann Unger, seem to commune with nature.

The sculptures were created during a time when she was battling and recovering from an illness and are a departure from her more well-known works.

"Her larger biomorphic shapes are really mostly bandaged using hydrocal and bonded iron, so its really with these forms, I think she was really dealing with the female body and this idea of the body destroying itself," Charles Davidson said. "I think that was definitely on her mind. The colors are usually much more earth tones, dark red and brown. It's definitely not as raw as this."

For her daughters, Eve and Petra Biddle, the citing of their mother's work along the woodland trail was "beautiful and thoughtful."

"What I love about it, is for people who are maybe intimidated by a museum setting, this allows you to interact with the art in a space you can explore with all your senses," Eve Biddle said. "You can feel the breeze. The wind and the light are part of it in the outdoor space. For me, there's nothing like the opportunity to be out in a space interacting with the natural environment."

Being able to interact with the art and experience it in natural light, as well the work being displayed in the historic setting of Chesterwood, is what keeps the show relevant year after year.

"There's this wonderful conversation that takes place between the sculptures, as you go from one artist to the next and to the next," Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, told The Eagle. "These sculptors are taking their work from the studio into nature. Daniel Chester French did just that. It's continuing that narrative."


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