FISHTAIL, Mont. — At first it sounds like some sort of bizarre, art-related math problem: If you had 11,500 acres of land, how many large-scale sculptures would you put on them? When you hear the answer — eight — it turns into a riddle: You have 11,500 acres of land; why do you plant only eight sculptures?
This was the question confronting me when I accepted an invitation to visit Tippet Rise, a new art center that’s also a working ranch in Fishtail, Montana (around the eight sculptures, 500 cows, 3,000 sheep, and one sheepdog roam). Fishtail is a town that’s not even a town — it’s an unincorporated community of fewer than 500 people whose main attraction is its general store, which sells, among other things, homemade pies and quilts.
This is how it works; Montana is Big Sky Country for a reason — there’s lots of open space and land, not a lot of people or buildings to interrupt them. And Montanans like it that way. The question, in truth, is not “why do you plant only eight sculptures?” It’s “why would you plant any more?”
Tippet Rise is in Fishtail technically, for the purposes of administration and Google Maps, but it feels as though you’re entering a parallel world as you turn past the general store and start up a gravel road that sends your vehicle into small, steady jumps. That road was not there three years ago. Neither were the power lines that run beneath it, the geothermal wells dug into the ground it rolls over, nor the solar panels that line the parking lot to which it leads. In the words of Tippet Rise Director Alban Bassuet, before the art center, “There was nothing.”
Except, of course, the land — vast and constantly shifting, cycling between rust red, basil green, and a pure, golden yellow depending on the weather and time of day. Tippet Rise is made up of six contiguous parcels of it, all former ranches that were bought by the center’s founders, Cathy and Peter Halstead. The Halsteads are artists — Cathy a painter, Peter a musician — as well philanthropists; both come from money (Cathy’s father was the creator of Grey Goose vodka; Peter’s father and grandfather worked in banks and oil). They’re also East Coasters who “love land,” in Cathy’s words — hence why they found themselves out West.
Inspired by the Maeght Foundation in France and Tickon in Denmark, the Halsteads had been dreaming for decades of finding a large plot of earth on which to site sculptures and host concerts. They searched all over but were picky, because the land itself was just as important as the artworks. What they wanted, they told me, was for visitors to “really feel the land, really feel the place,” and to have, in the midst of boundless nature, an experience of intimacy and solitude with art. They sensed this when they set foot in Fishtail. “It gave me a feeling of comfort,” said Cathy. “I wanted to be on this land.” Perhaps, as Peter suggested, this had something to do with the location in Montana, which is known in certain circles as “the last best place.” Or perhaps it was because the land already had its own artistic past: one of the three ranches first purchased by the Halsteads was the home of Montana modernist painter Isabelle Johnson (1901–1992).
Johnson used paint and canvas to frame the land she saw around her; the sculptures at Tippet Rise are framed by it, scattered singly throughout the 11,500 acres, each one surrounded on all sides by earth and sky. At their best, they provoke a conversation with their environs, a dialogue in which the speaker shifts depending on where you stand; at their worst, they try to shout over their setting and are promptly drowned out.
Such is the fate of the center’s high-profile Mark di Suvero sculptures, one a recent transplant from Storm King in New York (“Beethoven’s Quartet,” 2003), the other coming from Dallas (“Proverb,” 2002). Di Suvero’s work is a staple of sculpture parks the world over, to the point where I suspect there’s a line in some secret rule book passed between philanthropists and foundations mandating it. Occasionally, his abstract arrangements of steel beams can be evocative, but mostly they’re annoyingly attention-grabbing. At Tippet Rise, the stiff, red “Proverb” stands out amid the rolling hills and distant, snow-capped mountains like a wayward oil derrick. “Beethoven’s Quartet” harmonizes conceptually with its surroundings — the art center boasts two custom-built performance venues, a collection of 10 Steinway pianos, and will host a season of classical music concerts every summer — but tries too hard to be the star performer, rather than understanding the role of the accompanist. Mallets allow you to bang on the sculpture’s rotating centerpiece, but any sounds you unleash are likely to dissolve swiftly in the wind. “You can’t fight the landscape,” Bassuet said at one point during my visit. “You’ll never win.”
By contrast, the Alexander Calder sculpture that rises before you as your vehicle bounces over the entrance road appears majestic. “Two Discs” (1965) — on loan from Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum — holds court on a raised patch of land (according to press materials, an “alluvial bench”) alongside Tippet Rise’s primary building, the Olivier Music Barn. Up close, the sculpture’s oversize steel spikes and circles cut through the never-ending landscape; from afar, it morphs into a benign alien creature set to run off into the fading sunset.
But the real stars of Tippet Rise’s school of sculptures are the three works by Spanish architecture firm Ensamble Studio: “Beartooth Portal,” “Inverted Portal,” and “Domo” (all 2015). Commissioned by the Halsteads, all are enormous, unearthly creations formed by casting concrete and rebar in the earth at Tippet Rise and then maneuvering the resulting pieces into place using the largest crane in Montana. Each portal consists of two plates weighing a combined mass of almost one million pounds; turned on their sides and propped against one another, they form huge clamshells that seem to obey and defy gravity at the same time. “Domo” is a kind of massive, three-legged table — where I imagine giants who live in the sky might eat — whose stubby legs give way to smooth arches and cave-like spaces.
These sculptures are literally born of Tippet Rise, their crags, curves, and striations evoking the scenery around them. But their scale, shapes, and oddly neutral colors place them beyond our world, so that they come to look like land art objects dropped onto Montana from outer space. “They’re like Stonehenge, in a way,” said Peter. “It’s like living in mountains that have been created by the gods, or druids.” In a way — except the spaces carved out by these sculptures are surprisingly intimate (so much so that a bunny has taken up residence at the base of “Beartooth Portal”). Standing inside them, you get the distinct feeling that only humans would have shaped them as they are — with a view to the landscape just beyond, their portals acting as windows, perhaps even canvases, that help visitors frame the elements.
“Domo” was, in fact, designed with humans in mind: If you place a piano in one of its openings and remove the lid, the work focuses and projects the sound; it “becomes a piano,” said Bassuet. The piece doubles as a performance space, as does another sculpture commissioned for Tippet Rise, Stephen Talasnik’s “Satellite No. 5: Pioneer” (2015). Talasnik’s work is an elegant thicket of 160 cuts of yellow cedar, the logs and planks arranged to form two rough triangles that look like a pair of oversize wings, belonging to either a superhuman or an early wood airplane model. It carves out less explicit interior space than “Domo,” but is architecturally suggestive enough to create a site for performance — a feeling abetted by the natural bowl in which it sits, whose brown, green, and yellow swirls of earth seem to radiate from its angular form.
On the Saturday afternoon of my trip to Tippet Rise, 33 musicians — some professionals, from the Excelsis Percussion Quartet and Billings Symphony Orchestra; others novices, like Bassuet — gathered in a clump near “Pioneer” to perform “Inuksuit,” a work by composer John Luther Adams. At first, I couldn’t hear much besides the wind and other ambient sounds, but as the performers stepped away from the group, playing their instruments at intervals, I realized that some of those sounds were actually music. The uncanny whistling of whirly tubes began to mix with the clattering of rolling wood, while shakers pulsed and hissed. The musicians moved individually, fanning out one by one into a crowd scattered under the sculpture, in lawn chairs, and on their feet. The piece built gradually, almost by stealth, as small sounds gave way to bigger ones — the banging of drums, the bleating of horns, the blaring of sirens — until a rapturous cacophony that I could feel in my bones reverberated throughout the bowl. Then, as furtively as it had arrived, it faded away. The sirens dropped out, the drums quieted. I found myself standing high on a hill as a xylophone dueted with a flute, which was played by a lone woman just visible on the rim above me. Soon it was only flute, the sound becoming ever more distant as the player walked in circles and then away. I don’t know when the piece ended — I was left straining to catch stray notes through the wind and considerable silence.
I saw other performances that weekend, including an inspiring concert by pianist Stephen Hough in the Olivier Music Barn, where the state-of-the-art acoustics (engineered by Arup, the firm for which Bassuet worked before joining Tippet Rise) were marred only by the sound of squeaking chairs. But it was “Inuksuit,” performed in withering, 100-degree heat around “Pioneer,” that encapsulated what this strange center in Montana is meant to be: a communing with art and nature, an intimately stunning encounter with the possibilities of our world. It was an experience I’ll not soon forget.
It was also one I’ll not soon see again, because the conditions that went into creating it were so extraordinary. The Halsteads spared no expense in the making of Tippet Rise (a local with knowledge of the center’s inner workings told me there seems to be no budget, just money). They carefully control how visitors encounter the place by limiting them in number — concerts are capped at 150, art viewers at 100 a day — and in movement — people cannot drive their own vehicles around the property, but instead must be shuttled from sculpture to sculpture by electric van. The distances are far, but visitors may also walk — I think. When modes of transportation were first explained to me, walking was not included as an option; once I asked about walking, I was told one could. This was how my encounters generally went: questions about adding artist residencies, more sculptures, whatever else were greeted with an enthusiastic “yes!” but few details. Tippet Rise struck me, in this way, as a microcosm of America: an artificial place obsessed with authenticity, a place where, if you have enough money, anything is possible.
To be clear: it is a gorgeous and inspiring one. It’s also lavish, extraordinary, and perhaps foolhardy. Following the performance of “Inuksuit,” a fellow journalist asked me what I thought the ending of the piece had meant, when the lone flautist, or pied piper, played off into the wind. At the time, I wasn’t sure — I had been experiencing the work so viscerally that all symbolism escaped my grasp. But looking back, the metaphor shifts into focus. When the piper played off, she signaled to us that everything we’d just experienced — the music, the sculpture, the land, all of it working in harmony — was a dream. It was the dream of Tippet Rise, the opus of a very wealthy and wide-eyed couple who have a vision. If you’re lucky enough, you too will have the chance to pass through it.
Tippet Rise (96 South Grove Creek Road, Fishtail, Montana) is open this season through September 25.
Editor’s note: The author’s lodging and travel expenses were paid for by Tippet Rise.