It is difficult to capture the majesty of Tippet Rise Art Center, a 12,500-acre ranch in Montana that hosts both performance and sculptural art, in photographs. I sensed as much when the first images of the sculptures the owners, Cathy and Peter Halstead, commissioned there started appearing a few years ago. So I persuaded the ever-generous Frank Barkow to drive me two-and-a-half hours from his second home in Bozeman (itself an object of great merit) to the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains to see for myself how this art was faring in my native state. I was not disappointed. Not only does the ranch preserve and open up for public viewing the drama of the high rolling plateau surrounded by heights still capped by snow in May, but the human-made objects that answer to that natural stage set are more than up to the task.
That is because these sculptures are, first of all, big, as befits the Big Sky Country, as Montana calls itself. The Halsteads chose several existing pieces by luminaries such as Alexander Calder and Mark Di Suvero for prominent sites on the hills, and these works certainly hold their own. But they also commissioned a growing number of site-specific installations. Without a doubt the most impressive of these are the three pieces created in 2015 and 2016 by Ensamble Studio, a Madrid-based architecture firm. Two of them are what the partners, Anton Garcia-Abril and Debora Mesa Molina, call “portals:” Beartooth Portal and Inverted Portal. Each is more than 25 feet tall—and needs to be, given their locations on top of hills with not just the Beartooths, but three other ranges rising all around them.
What makes the Ensamble works remarkable, however, is not just their size, but the way they seem so in and of their place. That is because Garcia-Abril and Molina created them by pouring concrete, largely made from the dirt they excavated there, into shallow depressions, and then raising the resulting forms up simultaneously with the help of two large cranes. The finished shapes, each a sharp ovoid, come to a rest leaning against each other at their peaks. The two gateways are the reverse of each other in their finish; Beartooth Portal shows off its concrete, which has a lustrous, smooth texture because Ensamble poured the material into plastic liners, to the outside, leaving the inside to be a rough stone cave, while Inverted Portal turns its finished sides toward the interior of the sculpture. The creases and fissures where the plastic folded during the pour create the impression of veining, increasing the sense that the concrete is actually a form of honed marble. The stone and clay of the unfinished sides, meanwhile, are subject to weathering and decay. They not only show their age and varied composition, but also host birds, insects, mosses, and plants that further integrate the works into the site.
The third piece, Domo, is almost 100 feet long, but only 13 feet tall. Here, Ensamble poured the concrete into a mold, then dug away the soil around it, leaving an elevated horizontal platform that was originally meant to be occupied (safety reasons preclude that use). Below that plane is a landscape of arched openings, glistening in the sun and making room for a small stage where performances can take place. A cantilever on one side of Domo allows larger gatherings to occur in a bit of shade to the side, as well as shaping the sound in that one defined area of the vast plane around the sculpture. The three pieces appear to be both human-made—delighting in the craft and texture of the concrete, as well as in the willfulness of their form—and natural, rising as new kind of rock out of the earth.
While the Ensamble pieces are by far the grandest of the ranch’s works in both scale and ambition, at least in part because of their prominent locations on top of hills and because they are made of the site itself, the artist Patrick Dougherty’s Daydreams (2015) also manages to weave together site and human occupation, in this case quite literally. Working with local architects CTA and JXM & Associates, Dougherty replicated a nearby one-room schoolhouse (although it was abandoned, the owners wouldn’t let him move it onto the site). He then created one of his signature pieces using braided willow branches; rising up in front of the building and creeping its way into the space, it develops into whirlwinds of twigs that take up most of the classroom and then continue out the back (in what is actually a second piece created a few years later) to become a labyrinth before dying down right before a copse of trees. The artist and his team of helpers are virtuosos at weaving surfaces, forms, and spaces that are continuous and sensuous, and the play against the schoolhouse and the landscape intensifies the piece’s material delight.
Across the street Ai Weiwei has erected one of his metal trees, a leafless ghost of a living thing that stands on the plane in a manner that made me hum U2’s song "One Tree Hill" over and over.
The only disappointing construction—Xylem, a place of gathering designed by Pritzker Prize winner Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA, in 2019—lies closer to the ranch headquarters, where modest buildings house concert venues and offices. It consists of a canopy of wood logs clustered into a ceiling suspended from a visible metal structure. The beams and posts ruin the romance of being in a cave of cut-off trees quite a bit. Below, more logs form sinuous benches that curve around the space, their tops chopped off and hewn rather crudely to create seats and backrests.
Tippet Rise is not just a sculpture park. Aside from being a working ranch where hundreds of cattle and sheep range during the summer months, it is mainly a preserve that hosts music events. Musicians spend time in residence there, and the audience—more than half of whom are from Montana, I assume because of the site’s remote location—come for the music, but also for the place, which they enjoy on foot, by bicycle, and on guided tours. Having seen at least some of the art in the stillness of the spring, with patches of snow still on the ground, I fully intend to come back to hear the tunes echoing through those spaces.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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