Ideas of Stone (Idee di pietra)

Madison Square Park Conservancy
Nov 4, 2013 5:09PM

Ideas of Stone is a new installation of three bronze tree sculptures by Giuseppe Penone, an Italian artist whose work deftly interlaces the poetic and the monumental. Penone began his artistic career in the late 1960s as a member of the Italian Arte Povera movement. While many of the artists associated with Arte Povera worked with loosely assembled ephemeral materials like wool, twigs, ice, and clay, Penone has always turned to trees as subject, medium, and model for metaphor. At Madison Square Park, Penone’s work presents a conundrum in the form of an acrobatic and brawny feat: each thirty-foot-tall tree somehow cradles upwards of two thousand pounds of stone in the crooks of its branches. It is imagery of optimism and exhilaration, contemplation and quietude.

The stone referenced in the exhibition title comes to Madison Square Park in the form of eight massive river boulders, each hand picked and subsequently hoisted out of the Orco River near the artist’s native Turin. Penone’s tree branches balance configurations of one, two or five boulders. One sculpture bears the load at a single point; another bends to nest stones scaling higher and higher through its bare branches. The result is a seemingly weightless suspension that stands in contrast to the ponderous granite and bronze that constitute the work.

On one level, the boulders represent the formulation of free- flowing, unfettered ideas, or, as Penone writes, “ idea that appears suddenly or after long reflection in space without the mind’s force of gravity.” Once articulated, they are tamed by time, introspection, and memory, and take shape as Penone’s eponymous Ideas of Stone. For the artist, they are “...thought[s] weighing three tons suspended amid the branches of a tree.”

Penone’s lyrical analogy reveals the philosophical principles that have long guided his reckoning with key themes in sculpture, including gravity, weightlessness, organic growth, and metaphor. A repertoire of compositional choices shapes these themes across Penone’s suite of works: the artist places the stones, and his bronze sculptures capture a range of adaptive responses to the weight. In Idee di pietra – Olmo (Ideas of Stone – Elm), a “growing” tree appears to lift a stone to the sky. As Penone describes the phenomenon, “A mass with huge weight rises day by day and escapes the force of gravity.” Idee di pietra – 1303 kg di luce (Ideas of Stone – 1303 kg of Light) balances five boulders at five joints along the arching curve of a tree’s trunk and upper branches. Here, the rocks form a system of notation and memory, symbolizing points at which the tree’s growth has been altered by the elements. Lastly, Triplice (Triple) plays out the “slow drama” of “...a single tree, three trunks with a shared but distinct past.” A low, heavy mass pulls one trunk to the ground while another stands tall; Penone’s sculpture describes the tree’s simultaneous vertical and horizontal growth.

Defiance of the force of gravity underpins the literal and symbolic content of Penone’s work. Penone considers his earthbound boulders to have been lifted to the sky by the power of light, the force that fuels the growth of plant and human life. This levitation is, in turn, a metaphor for the sculptor’s project to build up and away from the earth, always working against the limits of gravity. “The aim of sculpture,” Penone writes, “is to discover, to bring to light...Sculpture discovers form in matter; it reveals it.” Ideas of Stone is an exploration of the dynamic relationship between restrictive and constructive forces, stolidly evoking moments of weight, strain, and interruption that govern and define future growth.

Photos by James Ewing Photography

Madison Square Park Conservancy