Farms can play home to a variety of crops and animals. Those who know me well might think that I am referring to the yak farm I spent some time on last year. However, over 400 acres in the Hudson Valley, there is a farm that raises something stranger than hairy beasts — art. A Manhattan couple, whose identity remains anonymous, recently purchased the sprawling former working farm of the James Cagney estate as a country home. Instead of the typical excuse for purchasing land upstate — to have verdant escape from Manhattan’s concrete and bustle — the urbanites simply wanted a place to store their art.
Many of the works on the art farm are site-specific and almost all are done on commission. Artists are given the prompt “do something you have never done before.” As a result, the extensive collection boasts work in a diversity of media, subject matter and scale. The land itself is well kept; the grass is cut short, minimal like the white walls in a museum. It serves as an unthreatening backdrop to the wild sculptures that rest upon it.
All of the works are unexpected. Roxy Paine’s Fallen Tree, 2006, plays subtly on the line of natural trees that surround it. The piece is a monumental sculpture of a shiny steel tree that has been snapped, and has fallen at an angle. Though Fallen Tree’s materials belie the natural setting, it retains a natural grace unexpected from a steel installation. Unlike Fallen Tree, Jose Dávila’s Container #2, 2008, does not purport to be anything other than a receding series of shiny frames, but it achieves a similar effect. The two works act as graceful points of entry to the large landscape around them. Structures like these offer their own perspectives through their manipulation of the setting they occupy. With its trunk broken at a right angle, Paine’s false tree focuses your attention on the real trees behind it, ones which could never fall so perfectly geometrically. Dávila’s structure also creates a retinal path, directing the viewer’s attention to a smaller, seemingly unassuming section of a dense forest area.
Other sculptures, like Sabine Hornig’s Entrance with Floating Stairs, 2008, make no attempt at blending in. Her massive work quite literally divides the landscape, offering the viewer a floating staircase to theoretically ascend to … nowhere. She even divides the staircase into two zones, and suspends a hollow white shape upon four pegs between them. On the stairs, a climber would theoretically pass through this empty space to enter a new, raised position. In this way, her sculpture also acts as a kind of frame through which to perceive the landscape. Yet, rather than do so physically, she has the viewer imagine this perspective, a new, but unknown, angle from which to understand the land.
Every element of the property, indoor and outdoor, is itself a work of art. The main house, designed by architect Brad Cloepfil, is a three-dimensional figure eight. In one room, Mel Bochner’s To Count: Intransitive, 1972-2009 acts as the windows. These windows are covered in a series of numbers that appear as if written on an eternally fog-covered piece of glass. And, just as the outdoor sculptures manipulate the viewer’s perception of the landscape, this installation filters the inhabitants’ access to the scene beyond.
This magnificent property is not limited to the couple’s private consumption. They have an art barn in which they exhibit installations twice a year by invitation to small school and museum groups. The upcoming spring show is “Thinking Through the Lens,” and it focuses on The Clock, 2010 a 24-hour video by Christian Marclay that they have recently acquired. Sadly, I don’t feel that I will be lucky enough to be invited.
The art farm is mysterious, secluded, magical, and I have described it here in as much detail as the available photos and limited information allow me. I cannot help but think about what this massive production means for the art world. The mystery behind the art farm, unreachable except by a leafy one mile path, and owned by anonymous patrons, challenges the recent movement toward greater public consumption of art. Could the holders of this enchanted place be the 21st century version of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel who amassed a collection of almost 5,000 works in their tiny Upper West Side apartment? This mysterious couple, like the Vogels, must have an intimate relationship with the artists from whom they commission. The art farm leaves me with many questions, foremost among them how the space will continue to develop, and whether I will ever be able to witness its fascinating landscape in person.