While sculpture gardens abound throughout the world, few (if any) conjure the kind of spiritual fusion of art and nature as the Longhouse Reserve in East Hampton. Founded by fabric designer Jack Lenor Larson in 1992, the 16 acres of designed landscape and installed artworks embodies a profoundly personal vision that is, by turns, gently contemplative and arrestingly thought provoking.
Having at its center a structure based on Japan’s Grand Shrine of Ise, which, much like Longhouse itself, is surrounded by a forest of cryptomeria, the gardens reflect the Japanese view of nature as embodying myriad mysterious forces that permeate both shapeless space and tangible matter. This creates the context in which the viewer is confronted with a seasonably changing tableau in which human aesthetics and nature effortlessly coexists, reflecting in a very real sense the philosopher Marshall McLuhan concept of “an entire environment as a work of art”.
In addition, it’s also difficult to assess the artistic impact of Longhouse absent the influence of the English poet Alexander Pope and his ideal of concealing the boundaries between art and nature within the structure of landscape itself. As John Tatter noted in his essay The Invisible Border Between Art and Nature: Pope’s Aesthetic Principles Applied to Poetry and Landscape, the landscape garden must be synthetically assembled while simultaneously seem to be entirely organic through a process in which a natural cacophony finds order through harmony. As Pope himself wrote in his poem Windsor Forest:
Not Chaos-like together crush’d and bruis’d,
But as the World, harmoniously confus’d:
Where Order in Variety we see,
And where, tho’ all things differ, all agree.
Beyond the thoughtful placement of Platanus X Acerifolia and Osmanthus Heterophyllus, however, the true imprint of humankind are the artworks and sculptures. Totaling over 60 works from both Longhouse’s permanent collection as well as objects on loan from various sources, their placement is constantly evolving (in many cases) thereby altering the viewing experience each time one visits. As Benjamin Gennocchio, the Arts and Entertainment critic from the New York Times once noted, Longhouse “offers the element of surprise: I love visiting this place because I never know what I’m going to find.”
Among the more notable of the recent installations is Host of the Ellipse (painted aluminum, 1981 by the abstract sculptor Ronald Bladen. Long considered a ‘father figure’ of Minimalist principles by contemporaries such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Sol Lewitt (whose own object situated nearby, Irregular Progression, is a superb example of the genre), Bladen’s piece here perfectly encapsulates the impact of both Isamu Noguchi and David Smith filtered through the artist’s use of elements of hard-edged abstraction fused with echoes of Russian Constructivism.
Kiki Smith’s Three Women, Three Sheep (bronze, 2009) is another recent installation and continues with this artist’s exploration of the human body as a powerful vehicle for expression. While profoundly more bucolic than much of her earlier works (such as her groundbreaking exhibition in the early 1980’s Life Wants to Live) the work here nevertheless reflects her continued examination of women and their relationship to society and nature through a visual interpretation emphasizing religion, spirituality, mythology, and folklore.
Sui Jianguo’s Legacy Mantle (cast iron, 2002) portrays a large (somewhere around 18 foot tall) rusting Mao jacket nestled in a bed of lush groundcover. Originally known in the early 1990’s for sculptures such as Land Depression which used huge boulders entwined in nets made of steel cables, the artist, who grew up during the chaos of the Great Cultural Revolution during the 1960’s and 70’s, began his series using the iconic uniform of the Great Leader in 1997. Using the jacket as an analogy for the empty promises of communism, he appropriated the symbol as illustrative of the revolution’s imposition of restrictions and limitations and, depending upon the version, has imbued them with various emotional elements that range from ponderous to whimsical.
For devotees of kinetic sculpture, Takashi Soga’s Eye of the Ring (bronze sheet and painted steel, 2007) is a startlingly effective evolution of the form originally found among the Dadaists and Russian Constructivists and later popularized by Alexander Calder and George Rickey. Utilizing counterbalancing weight that allows his large slabs of metal to seemingly hover weightlessly absent any apparent means of physical support, the work is simultaneously monumentally ponderous and elegantly delicate.
Lastly among the new installations are Grace Knowlton’s Spheres (rebar, mesh and aluminum wire, 2014) which manage to straddle the conceptual dividing line between organic objects crafted by nature and that which were molded by human hands. A continuation of a series she first began experimenting with in the 1970’s, the works first began when the artist was working on ceramic pots until the point that, as Ms. Knowlton once stated, “I got so interested in closing the pots, in making a secret space closed off forever, that it caught me and I never went back.”
Aside from these works in the gardens, one should make a point of viewing Yoko Ono’s monochromatic chess set titled Play It By Trust (marble dust and concrete, 1999), Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman (bronze, 2002), Mariyo Yagi’s NAWA Axis for Peace (fabric and steel column, 2014), and a realization of a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome by John Kuhtik title Fly’s Eye View (Fiberglass, 1998).
Also on display in the gallery in the main building is a special exhibition celebrating surf boards design and culture.
Longhouse Reserve is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm.