Opus 40 is a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor and quarryman Harvey Fite (1903—1976). It comprises a sprawling series of dry-stone ramps, pedestals and platforms covering 6.5 acres (2.6 ha) of a bluestone quarry.
Fite, then a professor of sculpture and theater at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, purchased the disused quarry site in 1938, expecting to use it as a source of raw stone for his representational sculpture. Instead, inspired by a season of work restoring Mayan ruins in Honduras, he began creating sculptures for installation in the quarry space itself.
To organize this exhibition, he quarried additional stone to build ramps and walkways to lead to the individual works, doing all the work by hand, and using the traditionalhand tools that had been used by the local quarrymen before him. As the rampwork expanded, Fite realized that the 1.5-ton (1.36 tonne) statue, “Flame,” which had occupied the central pedestal, had become too small for the scale to which his work had grown, and he replaced it with a 9-ton bluestone pillar which he had found in a nearby streambed. This happened in 1960, more than 20 years after he had begun work on his quarry. To raise the central monolith, Fite, an enthusiastic student of the techniques used by sculptors and builders of antiquity, adapted principles used by the ancient Egyptians. He removed “Flame” and its base, and continued to remove stone until he had formed a crater four feet deep in the spot where the monolith was to stand. He placed the stone so that it rested horizontally, with the tapered end over the hole. Using guy wires attached to a winch on the back of a pickup truck, Fite began the laborious process of raising the stone a few inches at a time, then propping it up with a crib of heavy wooden blocks. He continued this process until gravity took over, and the stone slid down into the hole, coming to rest at a 45 degree angle.
Fite constructed a huge A-frame out of 30-foot (9.1 m) timbers and raised it over the monolith, then used a chain hoist to lift the stone and suspend it over the hole. Still working stone by stone, he filled in the hole and built up a pedestal, topped by a three-quarter ton capstone. The monolith had previously been made ready by trimming its base, so that its center of gravity was exactly perpendicular to the capstone. This entailed a calculation of extreme precision, one that was worked out by Fite and his neighbor Berthel Wrolsen, a local man who was a self-taught engineering genius and an unofficial consultant to Fite on many structural issues over the years. The calculations were especially difficult in that the top of the monolith is not only wider than the base, but also asymmetrical. Lowered into place, the monolith was to be held there entirely by its own weight and balance. Fite and Wrolsen’s calculations, and Fite’s execution, proved to be correct. The monolith remains standing after nearly half a century’s exposure to all kinds of weather.
He had originally planned to carve the new stone in place (“Flame” had been carved in Fite’s studio), but once the stone was up, he realized that what he had originally conceived as a setting for sculpture had become a sculpture in its own right, and a new kind of sculpture, in which carved representational work was out of place. So he removed the other carved pieces, relocating them on the grounds nearby, and continued to work on this new sculptural concept for the rest of his life.
In the early 1970s, after he had retired from 30 years as a professor at Bard College, Fite built the Quarryman’s Museum on the grounds—a collection of folk tools and artifacts of the quarrying era.
It was around this same time that he finally succumbed to the pressure to give his masterwork a name. At first a joke — “Classical composers don’t have to name things,” he would say, “they can just number them, Opus One, Opus Two, and so on” — he eventually arrived at what was certainly an apropos name. Opus is the Latin word for work, and 40 refers to the number of years he expected he would need to complete the work.
Fite died in 1976, in the 37th year of his creation. He died working on it, in a fall. He left some unfinished areas—but, as his stepson, the writer Jonathan Richards, has observed, “Opus 40 is as complete as it ever would have been. It was the product of Fite’s ceaseless vision, and could only have been stopped by his death.”
The following year, his widow, Barbara Fite, who had been a close aesthetic collaborator with him throughout his labors, created the a nonprofit group which still administers it, and opened it to the public. Barbara Fite died in 1986, and her family continues to administer the organization. Opus 40 remains a popular tourist attraction, as well as a wedding and concert venue. In 2001 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Brendan Gill, in the March, 1989 edition of Architectural Digest, called Opus 40 “one of the largest and most beguiling works of art on the entire continent,” and he has also called it “the greatest earthwork sculpture I have ever seen.” Though Fite was not associated with the Land Art or Earthworks sculptural movement of the 1970s, he came to be known as a pioneer of that movement, and was recognized in 1977 by theHirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in a show entitled “Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects,” as a forefather of the earthworks movement
OPUS 40 refers to the 40 years Fite expects to put into the construction of the massive sculpture. But as he began moving those first stones back in 1939, he had no such dream. A quarry in the middle of the woods that has been standing idle for 30 years is nothing to inspire visions. It is a pile of rubble, grown over with brush. When Harvey Fife first stood there on its edge, he was not thinking of it as the raw material for one great monumental sculpture, but as an endless source of stone for works of a more conventional size.
Opus 40 began to emerge as a setting to display those works. Fite cleared away the brush and surface rubble, and at the high points of the quarry began to construct pedestals for his larger pieces. Then he built ramps to lead up to and between the pedestals. As he worked, it became apparent to him that what he was building was not a simple series of pedestals for sculpture, but a sculptured environment to set off a collection of work, a total expression in which the carved pieces would serve as individual statements.
With this concept in mind, he began to shape the sweeping rhythmic terraces, with the accents of steps and pools, that compose Opus 40. The technique he used is an ancient method called ”dry keying”, which relies on the careful fitting of stone upon stone, and the pressure of the mass, for its stability. The ”keys” are large stones placed at intervals throughout the wall, which support and are held in place by the smaller surrounding stones.
There is no mortar or cement anywhere in the construction; as a result, it is not susceptible to the ravages of erosion. In the normal course of events, Opus 40 could easily be standing ten thousand years from now.
From the foot of the main ramp, the development of Fite’s skill in fitting stone is dramatically evident. The southeast section, to the left, was the first of the lower areas that Fite sculptured, and the roughness of the technique stands in clear contrast to the remarkable fineness of the walls across the ramp.
As the major work grew, the smaller pieces seemed to shrink into it. The statues on the left and right – the two ton Tomorrow and the four ton Quarry Family were holding their own, but the central figure, a half ton carving called Flame, was totally lost in the massive scale.
In a creek bed a few miles away was a huge stone, Fite had first spotted it in 1952, and knew it was the stone he needed to establish the central focus of Opus 40. But there was a problem of disputed ownership of the stone, and it was twelve years before Fite could get clear title to it and bring it to his quarry.
Raising the nine ton monolith into position was the single most challenging problem in the construction of Opus 40. The method Fite chose derives from principles used by the ancient Egyptians. He removed Flame and its base, and dug a hole four feet deep in the spot where the monolith was to stand. Then he brought the stone in to rest horizontally with the tapered end over the hole. The stone was then tipped into the hole, raising the larger end, and a crib of heavy wooden blocks was inserted beneath it. Jacking up the heavy end a few inches at a time, Fite built up the crib until the stone was resting at approximately a 45 degree angle. It was then pulled into an upright position by guy wires attached to a winch in a pick-up truck, and held in place by countering wires.
A huge A-frame was then constructed out of 30 foot timbers, and raised over the monolith in the same fashion. A chain hoist with a half ton capacity was fitted to the top of the A-frame in order to haul up the ten ton capacity chain hoist that was needed to lift the stone. The monolith was then raised, and the base was built up beneath it, topped by a three-quarter ton capstone. The monolith, its bottom trimmed perpendicular to the center of gravity for maximum purchase, was finally lowered into place, held there entirely by its own weight and balance.
Fite had a rough plan for carving it, but once the monolith was in its place on the central pedestal, he realized that it was perfect as it was. Opus 40 had become a work of art that had nothing To do with carved sculpture. He removed the other statues to the surrounding woods, and allowed the main work to express itself in its own terms.