MOUNTAINVILLE, NY — Storm King Art Center comes alive in late fall, when a warm palate of red, turmeric, cinnamon, orange, and ochre leaves lies on the ground, shorn from trees stripped half-naked after the season’s first deluge. This year, among the di Suveros, the Serras, and other Modernist guardians, the autumn leaves adorn Lynda Benglis’s large works in cast metal and polyurethane. These pieces, along with an indoor gallery installation of smaller works, play at rituality and point to a chimera of ruin, maybe shipwreck, amid a landscape of clouds and mountains.
The exhibition is titled Water Sources, and though it points to a straight reading of many of the works on display, the title is hands down the worst part of the show. The best part? There are many, but in sum: the outdoor sculptures, never more so than right now. Undulating, wave-like, cresting forms cast in bronze and polyurethane, the works are fountains transfigured into priestesses pouring anointed oils and scented water in Storm King’s macho modernist temple. Over the course of several visits during summer and fall, works displayed in triptych like “Bounty,” “Amber Waves,” and “Fruited Plane” (all 2014) and “Pink Ladies” (2014) with “Pink Lady (For Asha)” (2013) revealed their relationships to Storm King’s curated landscape. What earlier had seemed like reflections of sacramental concerns — say, ritual pouring, perhaps drawn out of Indian or Hindu customs — became monuments to mourning. Over the summer the hot pink polyurethane of “Pink Ladies” aged to a moderate mauve. Water became balm and solvent. I couldn’t have seen it on a late summer evening, but “Hills and Clouds,” further out in the wilds of Storm King, turned nuclear-waste neon green on my last visit in the autumn dark a week ago.
Water Sources pulls together a more magnificent collection of Benglis’s works than anything you might have seen recently at Frieze London, or, say, in Cheim & Reid’s collection. You may come for the outdoor fountains, but keep an eye out for the pieces off to the side of the main attraction: three small works in cast bronze that look precisely like what they are — spray foam turned metal — but tease at mushroom clouds. And stay for the works installed inside Storm King’s galleries, made to look like thrown and pressed, brightly glazed clay; some refer to sedimented rock formations, some don’t, but nearly all are rendered in bronze. We’re in an encounter with nature here, and there’s alchemy at play.
The works indoors, now lit by autumn’s warm blue light, are a narrative inquiry into material, a manifestation of the history of how the art outdoors came to be. The totemic fountains seem to have descended from a series of small pieces in ceramic and bronze on found stone bases, including “Snakemare III” (1991), which is all serpentine forms twisting in space like Shiva dancing.
An installation of larger works in the inner sanctum of the gallery suggests contact between indoors and out. Three pieces provocatively titled “Black Ice” (2009) look toward each other, but visitors enjoy a line of sight to the “Pink Ladies” installed beyond the windows; maybe the parts of “Black Ice” are ready to accompany the ladies to a picnic on a grassy knoll, but they’re gaming ideas for what they’ll do there. Visitors will have to judge for themselves whether the coupling of the two triptychs, outdoors and in, female and male, is a thematic contrivance or the bountiful yield of thoughtful curation. Despite its rich associations, “Black Ice” is the only near miss in the show. Lit from above by dainty bulbs, its pieces embody all the material enigma of the works outdoors, but generate none of their radiance. Perhaps if they were lit from below and the polyurethane then used as a prism, they might have been a bigger draw.
The gallery exhibition doesn’t finish off the show. Hidden far aground, away from the fountains, snakes, and couples, stands “Hills and Clouds” (2014), a seemingly direct riff on landscapes. But look closer and you’ll see that the beams propping up the hills and clouds in the work are cast metal, a latticework of DIY construction. They resemble the innards of a hastily crafted raft — perhaps the barely seaworthy remnants of the Medusa.
Water Sources comes down after this weekend; come visit. Late fall is all around us, and though it’s unseasonably warm, winter is coming; with it, Storm King will slink back into its solemn hibernation.
Lynda Benglis: Water Sources continues at Storm King Art Center (1 Museum Road, New Windsor, New York) through November 8.