Saturday, November 2, 2013

Opus 40

Opus 40 a dry stone 'sculpture' near Woodstock in upstate New York was one of the first landscape art installations of the 20th century, and was the life work of Harvey Fite.

Fite was a Professor at Columbia University's Barr College having set up the Fine Arts course there. He appears to have been something of a character, having dropped out of both law studies and subsequent studying for the priesthood to become an actor and then sculptor, as part of the famed Mavericks community at Woodstock.

Once established at Barr he began to look for somewhere to live and came across an overgrown disused quarry near Saugerties, a ready supply of stone and wood, what more could a sculptor want? He purchased the property in 1938 and begun the construction of a series of ramps and platforms on which to display his sculptures. A network of paths and steps navigate the site, with ponds fed from a natural spring incorporated into the structure. Fite carried out most of the work himself, with occasional labouring help, apparently he hated anyone else laying a stone. The structure grew and soon he realised that it dwarfed his sculptures, it itself had become a sculpture. The central plinth's sculpture, 'Flame', was obviously too small and in the early 60s was replaced by a 9 tonne monolith around 14 feet tall. Harvey had discovered this some 10 years earlier in a stream bed, but it 'bridged' two properties, one belonging to a church and the priest wanted far more than Harvey could afford. It is in keeping with the man, his vision, patience and dedication to Opus 40, that he just waited and outlasted the priest who eventually died, his successor was willing to part with the stone and it duly took up its place.

Work on the site continued, sections were rebuilt and additional areas developed. Work came to a sudden halt in 1976 when Harvey accidentally drove a lawn mower off a quarry edge on the site, the section of amphitheatre wall he was working on, with its huge capstones lined up for installations remains unfinished as 'monument' to him.

The work itself seems to strike at people's emotions. The public seem to love it, some revere it, others invest it with mystical qualities. Some decry anyone working on it or any form of maintenance and sacrilege, an insult to Harvey's dream. Artistic appreciation is very much a personal thing, I can accept people not liking something that does not appeal to their aesthetic. I have not heard of anyone decrying Opus 40 on the grounds of it being some form of artistic carbuncle however many wallers seem to have a love hate relationship with it some have even suggested it be dynamited and rebuilt 'properly'. Does a running joint make it any less an achievement, or of less artistic value? 

I can't help but think some people cannot see the structure for the stone. I like to think there is a walling equivalent  to saying 'you can't see the wood for the trees', something along the lines of not being able to see the wall for the stone. That doesn't quite seem to apply here.
It is clearly built by an amateur, but just because it is built with dry stone who are we to judge it purely on this basis that it is not technically correct. 

The best analogy I can come up with is it being the waller/stonemason equivalent of a cabinet maker criticising African tribal art for being technically crude. Surely the point is being missed somewhere and anyway could you lift and balance a less than regular 9 tonne needle on a pillar?

Thanks go to Sean Adcock of Stonechat Magazine for writing this comprehensive article for Thinking With My Hands.