In 1938 artist Harvey Fite bought 12-acres of land and an old quarry in Saugerties, New York for $325. Set within the foothills of the Catskills, it would become the setting for Opus 40, a monumental abstract environmental sculpture in bluestone. Fite worked on the piece over half his life, from ’39 until his death in ’76, on the site.
Architectural Digest critic Brendan Gill said Opus 40 was,
“one of the largest and most beguiling works of art on the entire continent… a cousin of Stonehenge and the long since vanished Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”
In June 1980 Art in America said,
“Opus 40 is a kind of unintended precursor to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and to earthworks such as the ones recently proposed as land reclamation projects in King County, Washington. It is a rare example of monumental outdoor sculpture on the east coast … ”
Born in Pittsburgh, started out studying law he turned to the theater. Fite’s stepson Tad Richards, who today lives on the site, says
“Backstage one day he picked up a seamstress’s discarded spool and began whittling it. Not long afterward he left the theater, and set about becoming a sculptor.”
The Cultural Landscape Foundation gives the history of the site and Fite,
Shortly after purchasing his property, Fite spent several months in Honduras working with an archaeological team to restore Mayan sculpture. Inspired by the art and stone construction methods he saw on his trip, upon returning to New York he began work on a series of sculptures and an outdoor gallery to hold them.
Working alone, and largely self-taught, he built the gallery of rubble from an abandoned bluestone quarry on the property, using an adaptation of dry key stone masonry, a traditional technique which involves the mortarless careful fitting of stone upon stone. The terraced site, which at Fite’s death would span 6.5-acres, would come to be known as Opus 40. Fite conceived of the varied terraces of Opus 40 as pedestals for his sculptural works and he built ramps, walkways, and stairs connecting the spaces to each other.
He incorporated the natural landscape, building around trees and pools of water so that they became a part of the piece. He worked without a plan, letting his artist’s eye and the shapes of nature combine to form the lines, curves and masses that make up the site. The sprawling piece of environmental art fits intimately into the larger landscape which incorporates a house, and its surrounding woodland.
According to Fite’s friend, the novelist Henry Morton Robinson,
“In his own words he [Fite] wanted
‘to create a sculptural landscape at the foot of Mount Overlook.’
To accomplish this he lifted with his own hands thousands of tons of bluestone rubble—not only lifted the jagged pieces, but carried them distances up to 100 yards to fit them into his scheme. Pieces too big to be lifted were either mounted on homemade wooden rollers or laboriously broken by sledge hammer. It was a titanic operation that a traveling crane might well have quailed at; Fite lost 30 pounds that first summer, but developed, incidentally, the finest pair of shoulders in Ulster County. And in the meantime he had transformed the chaos of rubble into a series of level terraces which were to be the pedestals for individual pieces of sculpture; his own, as well as the work of others.
Fite’s Acropolis is strictly non-commercial. He will not sell a foot of his ground and no amount of money would tempt him to exhibit a piece of statuary he didn’t think worthy of a spot. He has twisted stubborn beauty out of the most recalcitrant stone, only because he is more stubborn than the stone itself. And he has transformed a quarry-dump into a minor wonder of the world because he had the vision to see beauty where others saw only a heap of ugly debris.”
In ’62 he installed the 9-ton bluestone monolith at the center of the site using ancient Egyptian methods to maneuver it into place. Fite began to realize that the site had become a work of art in its own right and he eventually moved his sculptures to other parts of the property.
Fite retired from teaching at Bard College in ’69 and continued to work on Opus 40 until he passed away due to a fall in the quarry in ’76. His widow opened the site to the public in ’77 and placed it under the management of a non-profit foundation. In recent years the site has served as a venue for concerts and performances.
After years of being overseen by Tad Richards, Opus 40 appointed Caroline Crumpacker as the new executive director last fall to deepen its ties with the community, expand the programs offered and bring in money to help sustain it.
“I have a lot of experience, creating partnerships in the arts in various ways—with other non-profits, with artists, with different communities. This is one of the things that I want to start at Opus 40 —which isn’t to say that has never happened before— but to really expand the ways that we engage the community.”
For more info about visiting the site, events there and to see more amazing pics, go here.