Sharon Lorenzo reviews this Princeton exhibit relating art to our environment.
This exhibition rethinks the history of American art in terms of ecology and environmental concerns in 120 major works on loan from all over the globe. Six years of research by Princeton’s curator of American art, Karl Kusserow and Alan Braddock from the College of William and Mary art history faculty went into this exhibit. Stunning in its breadth and depth, the curators have embraced the latest in scientific analysis and eco-criticism as they look at the complex entanglement of art and our environmental history from the beginning of our nation to the present. The show will travel after January to both the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts then on to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas where Alice Walton built in 2011 a collection of American Art from colonial times to the present.
The show is divided into three segments: Colonization and Empire, Industrialization and Conservation, and Ecology and the Environment. The grid and flow of the show begins with references to the European scholars, Carolus Linnaeus and Alexander von Humboldt, who gave us the beginnings of natural classification and the biotic history of species from their world travels before the American conquests. The installation begins with the first American artist who did 435 paintings and engravings which document our vital role in recording the flora and fauna of our nation with essays on each by John J. Audubon (1785-1851) who left us a legacy of art and science to emulate for many centuries.
We see the first attempt at a museum effort in Philadelphia by American artist Charles Wilson Peale whose “wunderkammer” cabinet of 10,000 curiosities ranged from portraits of George Washington to mastodon bones. This work is on loan from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1805, where Peale charged 25 cents per visitor and noted that this was a museum dedicated to “ Wonderful Works of Nature and Curious Works of Art.”
The breathtaking works of art from the early Hudson River School that are in this show reflect our colonial embrace of the manifest destiny of the American continent as it appeared after the American Revolution to painters who toured the solitude of the early landscape. Artists like Thomas Cole who emigrated from the United Kingdom to Philadelphia in 1818, captured the pristine rustic natural web of New England at its best with horse and rider not marring the landscape with any disturbing technological activity. Karl Kusserow calls this a pastoral view of human harmony with nature.
Thomas Cole ( 1801-1848) A view of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains of New Hamsphire, 1839, oil on canvas
The next phase of the installation brings many questions to the ideal tranquility of the American landscape as the Civil War brings death and disruption to the entire continent with pollution and epidemics in both the human and environmental sectors of the economy. The juxtaposition of these two works by Albert Bierstadt and Valerie Hegarty show how modern artists are questioning the clarity of our past and present treatment of our national parks such as Yosemite which was the first nationally dedicated terrain in 1890. With the expansion of the railroad systems and decimation of the Native American occupants of the western territories, early photographers like Edmund Curtis depicted the reality of a pile of bison skulls documenting the extinction of the species that roamed the prairies for centuries undisturbed.
Valerie Hegarty (1967) Fallen Bierstadt, 2007, oil on canvas
Native American artist, Jaune Quick- to-See- Smith, is a member of the Salish tribe from the Olympia region of Washington State. Raised by a father in the horse business, she said he taught her how to see as she watched the women of her tribe tan hides. Her stained map of the USA depicts the damage and depletion of our natural resources as industrialization moved west across the nation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The price of progress is evident in her Browning of America depiction.
Both curators Kusserow and Braddock joined in the authorship of a final essay in the catalog entitled The Big Picture: American Art and Planetary Ecology. They cite numerous modern artists who are positioning their works to raise awareness of our ecological needs such as Alexis Rockman, whose work,” Aviary” depicts extinct species on an iron tree. The irony is that his mother worked with anthropologist Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History. This just sharpens his contribution to our focus on the man-made damage to so many of our species which here seem mutilated in toxic sludge and metal trappings.
Numerous lectures and symposia are being held on campus as part of this effort to use American art to raise our awareness about the need for environmental protection for our land’s flora and fauna as well as the future of the human race. Princeton is in a unique position to be able to bring its astute faculty members together on these complex problems. The museum web site enumerates each lecture and date in detail for those able to visit the campus during the holiday season.
 Karl Kusserow, Ordering the Land. Nature’s Nation, Princeton University Art Museum, 2018 p. 94.
If you miss the premiere of this show at Princeton, it will travel in 2019.
- Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (Feb. 2–May 5, 2019)
- Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (May 25–Sept. 9, 2019).
October 13, 2018- January 6, 2019