This past Saturday, the Catskills were a symphony of colors. The maples, oaks, and beech trees are a living canvas, the landscape painted with fiery neon reds and golden yellows. We went full, annoying leaf peepers, meandering around the rolling hills and valleys on Route 28. We were slowly working towards Saugerties to visit Opus 40, an art environment constructed on an abandoned bluestone quarry site. Harvey Fite purchased the property for $376.25 in 1938, four years after returning to the region to teach at St. Stephen’s College (later renamed Bard College). He began as an instructor in the drama department and shifted to sculpture as they organized the Fine Arts Department. His initial intention was to separate 6½-acres of the property to create a sculpture garden with stone pedestals to exhibit his figurative works. It didn’t take long before he understood that the true artwork was not the supports but the massive earthwork that was simultaneously foreign and harmonious to its stunning surroundings.
In the summer of 1939, Fite visited Copan, Honduras, home to one of the most renowned Mayan archaeological sites, where he assisted in restoring ancient stone ruins. Here, he was trained in dry keying, a traditional building technique that involves the assembly of stone structures without the use of mortar or other binding materials. This method relies solely on the careful arrangement and interlocking of stones to create stable and enduring architectural elements. It’s not just a construction method but also a form of art that connects with the natural world and showcases the human ability to work in synchronization with nature. These are skilled artisans who have a deep understanding of the properties of the stone. They understand the memory of a stone. Back in Ulster County, Fite took these ageless building techniques and began elevating the earth upwards, lifting this distinctive blue-gray rock from the ground and giving it greater presence.
It is impossible not to focus on the vastness of the work. For thirty-seven years, Fite completely transformed this slag heap using only traditional, hand-powered quarryman’s tools. Hammers, chisels, drills, ledges and wedges, rock hooks, and a massive, hand-cranked boom. This meticulous process resulted in an interconnected labyrinth of terraces, inclines, stairwells, pools, moats, and below-the-ground passageways, all carefully positioned with remarkable accuracy. The undulating rock channels twist and swirl, and the gentle, flowing curves feel like a maze. Similar to a child’s doodle with its delightful and spontaneous switchbacks, one wrong turn and you are confronted directly with the profound depths of geological history. When you stop to consider the plotting, the hard work, and the mathematical calculations that contributed to this captivating illusion, it is incredible to find out that Fite made this up as he went along. The redesigned landscape was nearly entirely improvised.
As you walk, the rocks crunch and clatter beneath your feet. The stability of the rocks can be unpredictable. The lack of certainty leaves your senses in a heightened state. Regardless of your path, all roads point back to the Monolith. Weighing 9 tons and standing 13 feet tall, the boulder serves as a centerpiece, a humbling piece of alien architecture that stays triumphantly above us. Fite meticulously elevated the stone using winches and guy wires, employing methods reminiscent of ancient Egyptians. It’s humbling beneath it. It’s not a monument but a challenge to the monumental concept. By inverting the landscape, Fite illustrates the tension between the region’s natural beauty and manufactured artifice.
Turning around on this rock terrace, you realize this work is about time. In the distance, trees have been cleared to perfectly frame small mountains and taller mountains, each covered in the most vibrant yellowest of the yellow and reddest of the red autumnal leaves to rejoice in the tree’s renewal, its sustained existence as a work of art. The kinetics of the seasons. What we take and what we leave behind. All of this toil over something so near to the edge of its collapse. Opus 40 was conceived as a platform for works of art but became a platform for the ever-changing Catskill Mountains. And the mountains always win.
Opus 40 is one artist’s attempt to make sense of the world. These days, the big pieces (or hundreds of thousands of pieces) of nature feel more like a fantasy. An irrational dream of using materials that are selected and gathered on-site. Utilized in a way that causes minimal disturbance. The land itself is the work. Fite decided to call the work Opus 40 precisely because he estimated the need for forty years to complete the project. Tragically, he died in 1976 at the age of 72, three years before the scheduled completion. (While operating a power lawnmower, he tumbled into the quarry from a cliff on the edge of the property). But the weathered stones and the artist’s meticulous placement of fossils and mineral specimens serve as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of human existence. Opus 40 becomes a living, constantly evolving work of art. Fite created this masterwork as a site for us to capture a moment, to slip into a memory in the forever-shifting dynamics of nature, time, and life.