National News

H. Peter Stern, Co-Founder of Storm King Art Center, Dies at 90

Posted November 15, 2018 8:17 p.m. EST

H. Peter Stern, who co-founded the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, and developed it into a prestigious outdoor sculpture museum with modern and contemporary works arrayed over a vast pastoral landscape, died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.

His wife, Helen Drutt English, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease and hydrocephalus, or excess fluid on the brain.

Storm King is “one of the most significant sculpture gardens in the world,” Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said in a telephone interview. “Very few have the scope, scale and ambition that Storm King has.”

At first, Stern and his father-in-law, Ralph Ogden, who were the owners of a business that manufactured metal fasteners for construction and home use, had planned an indoor museum to exhibit paintings of the Hudson River School. It was to have been housed in a chateau that was part of an estate Ogden’s foundation had acquired in 1958. But Ogden became enamored of sculpture, and his ambition turned to showcasing large contemporary works outside, on the estate’s grounds. The Storm King Art Center opened in 1960.

Stern said the art center — which is located about 50 miles north of New York City, near West Point, and is named for a nearby mountain — was a product of vision and opportunity.

“The land was cheap,” he said in an interview with Harvard Magazine in 1999. “Big sculptures were just beginning to be built, and they were affordable. Engineers were available in my company to help with installation and conservation.”

Stern and Ogden, who were still running their company, Star Expansion, at the time (Stern sold it in the 1990s), divided the work at the art center. Stern ran the administrative side while Ogden indulged his love of collecting. Ogden died in 1974.

“He told my dad something like, ‘I’m having so much fun, and when I die you’ll have this kind of fun in a more prominent role,'” John Stern, who succeeded his father as Storm King’s president in 2008, said of Ogden in a telephone interview.

Stern and Ogden collaborated in 1967 on a coup that dramatically elevated Storm King’s profile: the acquisition of 13 colorful steel, iron and bronze works by David Smith, a major abstract expressionist who had died two years earlier. Seeing many of Smith’s sculptures arranged in the grass outside his studio in the Adirondacks further fixed Ogden’s ideas about Storm King’s outdoor artistic mission.

“Works of art should not be seen in isolation; they should be seen in a beautiful context,” Stern told Harvard Magazine. “Every period of high civilization has shown great art in beautiful houses, beautiful gardens. That is why I have such a strong feeling about giving everything space, of putting sculptures in relationship to everything else. And of not overdoing things.”

Working since the mid-1970s with David Collens, Storm King’s director and chief curator, Stern was determined to declutter the landscape.

John Stern said that his father and Collens “established the aesthetic that each sculpture has its own space.”

“It’s a very thoughtful process,” he added, “and works get re-sited as the landscape evolves and trees go down.”

At any given time, Storm King’s 500 acres are usually filled with 110 to 120 sculptures, including works commissioned from Richard Serra, Maya Lin, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik and Andy Goldsworthy, and others that have been acquired, including works by Louise Nevelson, Mark di Suvero, Henry Moore, Ursula von Rydingsvard and Alexander Calder.

Harold Peter Stern was born on June 12, 1928, in Hamburg, Germany, and moved with his family to Bucharest, Romania, when he was an infant. His father, Otto, was a top executive for Royal Dutch Shell in Romania, and his mother, Charlotte (Goldschmidt) Stern, was a homemaker.

In 1939, Otto Stern was warned by a German officer of the perils his family would face — the Sterns were Jewish — if they stayed in Romania, which was turning increasingly anti-Semitic and leaning politically toward Hitler. Peter, his mother and his sister, Ellen, fled to Geneva, where they stayed for about a year, before boarding a ship in Genoa, Italy, for the United States. Otto Stern stayed at his job in Romania for another year and rejoined his family in Scarsdale, New York. He died in an airplane crash in 1946 on a trip back to Romania.

After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature, Stern entered Yale Law School. He left after two years to attend the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree, and then returned to Yale to finish his law degree in 1954.

But he was unhappy as a lawyer and accepted Ogden’s offer to join his business. “Peter’s father was killed in a plane crash,” Joan Stern, Ogden’s daughter and Stern’s first wife, said in an interview in 2017 for Storm King’s oral history project. “My father’s son was killed in an automobile crash. My father wanted a son and my husband wanted a father.” Stern’s artistic interest led him to work as a trustee and vice chairman of the World Monuments Fund. He campaigned for the preservation or restoration of cultural treasures like the giant Easter Island heads and “Endless Column,” Constantin Brancusi’s 98-foot-tall cast-iron modernist work in Targu Jiu, Romania, that is a tribute to the Romanian soldiers killed in World War I.

He also found time to take cooking lessons and study mime, which he performed for friends.

“It was a midlife phase in the late 1970s,” John Stern said. “He had a real moment of change and became more outward looking. Having grown up as a scholar and bookish, he became somewhat of a ham. He loved mime.”

In addition to his wife and son, Stern is survived by his daughters, Lisa and Bea Stern; his stepdaughters, Ilene Weiss, Sara Griffen and Kate Johns; a stepson, Matthew Drutt; and six grandchildren. His marriage to Joan Stern ended in divorce, and his marriage to Margaret Johns ended with her death in 2003. Stern said that his favorite work at Storm King was Noguchi’s “Momo Taro,” a 40-ton granite sculpture that hugs the earth and sits on a specially landscaped hill.

“Noguchi says there are two ways of proceeding as a sculptor,” he told Harvard Magazine. “One is to plan what you’re going to do and then do it. The other is to create, and then see what you have done. Noguchi puts himself in the second category as an artist, and I’d say that’s the way we have created the art center and I have lived my life.”