What in the world have we done to our planet? Two paintings at the entrance to “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” on view at Princeton University Art Museum through January 6, place the big question of our era front and center.
Albert Bierstadt’s “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite” depicts water cascading, as if from a bright blue sky, over a stone edifice and into a natural pool within the rocks. It was painted between 1871 and 1873. Positioned right next to it is Brooklyn artist Valerie Hegarty’s 2007 work, “Fallen Bierstadt.” She makes a facsimile of the original 150 years later and shows it to us as if it were charred remains. Fragments of the lower portion of the painting have crumbled to the floor.
But was our nation’s nature ever as pristine and unpeopled as depicted by Bierstadt and his Hudson River School contemporaries, who promulgated the notion of sublime in the American West? Nature so spectacular, overwhelmingly grand with a capital N, that humans weren’t a part of the picture. Or if they were depicted, Native Americans are shown moving off in the mist, making room for European settlers.
In telling the story of our changing relationship with the natural world, “Nature’s Nation” looks inside the politics of a utopian Arcadia in which European settlers took the land from indigenous people and altered it with industry that spews toxins into the skies.
One of the very first things to catch your attention upon entering the exhibition space is a prominently positioned wampum belt made by a Leni Lenape artist titled “Mathakawenanak Scheyichbink (We Fight Them in New Jersey).”
“It is a way to acknowledge the people who lived here before us,” says co-curator Karl Kusserow, curator of American art at PUAM. “The broken peace pipe refers to broken promises, and the tomahawk signals that they will fight for the rights that the history of this place prior to us be acknowledged. We thought it was appropriate to display alongside the list of funders.”
“The land on which this building stands is part of the ancient homeland and traditional territory of the Lenape people,” the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement states. “We pay respect to Lenape peoples, past, present, and future and their continuing presence in the homeland and throughout the Lenape diaspora.”
Kusserow worked with Alan C. Braddock, professor of art history and American studies at the College of William and Mary, for seven years on this major exhibition.
Encompassing three centuries of American art with works in painting, sculpture, works on paper, video, and decorative art borrowed from 70 lenders, it is twice the size of most exhibitions at PUAM, taking up the back wing where contemporary art is often exhibited (20th and 21st-century works from this show now fill that space).
The artists in “Nature’s Nation” include, among others, John James Audubon, Edward Burtinski, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Mark Dion, Thomas Eakins, Theaster Gates, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Ana Mendieta, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Maya Lin, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Robert Smithson, and N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth — indeed it’s an exhibition that will require numerous visits to take it all in.
To supplement the exhibit ongoing programming includes a conversation with author and environmentalist Naomi Klein on Thursday, November 15; a gallery talk with PUAM Native American Art collections specialist India Young on Friday, November 16; a conversation with artist Alexis Rockman on Thursday, November 29; and a symposium, “Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective,” Saturday and Sunday, December 7 and 8. (For times, venues, and additional programming, visit artmuseum.princeton.edu)
“Nature’s Nation” takes a different approach to the history of American art, using ecocriticism — a rapidly emerging field of literary study that considers the relationship that human beings have to the environment — to look at art and visual culture. For example, we see Thomas Moran’s painting “The Golden Gate, Yellowstone National Park” in 1893, celebrating a site once inhabited by Native Americans and set apart for tourists.
Then nearby, in “The Browning of America” (2000), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (a member of Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) presents a map of the U.S. that reasserts Indigenous presence through pictograms and brownish red stains. Names of marauding groups such as Saxons, Druids, and Celts on the right are being pushed out and replaced by those who had been here before.
“Yellowstone Park is for everyone,” says Kusserow.
Similarly, Aaron Douglas — a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance — in his 1966 painting “Song of the Towers,” brings attention to the fact that nature is not just non-urban, it’s everywhere. His African-American saxophone player is presented against the New York City skyline, smokestacks spewing pollution. After the freedom gained by African-Americans following the Great Migration to northern industrial areas, there remain environmental forms of injustice, with disproportionate levels of pollution in minority neighborhoods, says Kusserow.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s drawing for Central Park, on view here, reminds us of how nature was imported to New York City, with its controlled and planned irregularities.
Many of the portraits in American art were commissioned by white people. “People didn’t want to see wilderness and unsettled land” in paintings, says Kusserow. “If you want to see representations of land in the early 1700s, you have to look in the portraits, at the liminal space between inside and outside,” such as scenes outside the window behind the well-to-do portrait sitter. “In the early 19th century we started to get landscape paintings.”
Even the materials from which arts are crafted speak of environmental injustice. For example, a Colonial-era chest of drawers is made from mahogany, a wood that was grown in Jamaica and harvested by slaves clearing sugar plantations. After decimating the growth in Jamaica, plantation owners moved on to Honduras and further spread slavery.
Objects made from silver, such as an urn and a festive hat, show the real cost of extracting silver — Indigenous Americans often died in the silver mines to extract the metal.
“It’s not just about people but other beings,” notes Kusserow, indicating Subhankar Banerjee’s colossal chromogenic print, “Caribou Migration,” which presents an aerial view of a herd of pregnant caribou migrating across frozen, federally protected land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a recurring locus of partisan debate over oil drilling, with congressional Republicans advocating extraction and Democrats arguing for protection.
In fact, as the exhibition reminds, retired U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer once displayed one of Banerjee’s images as proof against Republican claims that the Arctic refuge was nothing but “flat, white nothingness,” that might as well be drilled. In 2003, when Banerjee exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, he became a victim of petro-politics, relegated to a small basement gallery without the essential explanatory labels about ecological vulnerability. (Here we have the artwork, and its explanation, in all its glory.)
Just as its subject lifts its curtain up to reveal the artifacts of art history, the enormous Charles Willson Peale painting “The Artist in His Museum” (1822) opens a curtain into the world of aesthetic objects past and present. The nine-foot-tall canvas, ordinarily on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, is among the many masterpieces in this exhibition.
“I can’t believe we actually have it here,” says an enthused Kusserow.
Peale’s monumental self-portrait commemorated his lifelong effort to build an interdisciplinary public museum in Philadelphia. The first American institution of its kind, Peale’s museum contained 10,000 specimens of flora and fauna along with portraits of illustrious patriots and scientists. Following Linnaean principles of classification, its exhibits demonstrated the enduring influence of European ideals of natural order through systematic ranks of display cases containing different species in appropriate habitat dioramas.
“Peale’s harmonious vision faced a looming threat, however, from the greatest attraction in his museum: a fossil skeleton of an extinct mastodon, lurking in the shadows at right — tangible proof of discontinuity and disorder in nature.
“Which means there’s extinction,” says Kusserow. “There was a shift in how people saw how the world came into being. The central tenet of ecology is that there is a connection between species.”
In 1847 Thomas Cole — the “founding father of American landscape painting” — painted “Home in the Woods,” in which a small family is living in a log cabin along a lake in the misty mountains. The patriarch returns from a trip in the canoe, bearing a single fish, as his wife and child open their arms to greet him. Cole is moving from an unpeopled sublime wilderness to accommodate human presence. His settlers tread lightly on the land. Resource extraction — fishing, the clearing and harvesting of timber — appears to be minimal, leaving little impact. The fictional account of settlement is without environmental cost and leaves out the extermination of Native Americans that made such settlements a possibility.
Nearby is Alan Michelson’s 2012 “Home in the Wilderness,” reproducing the cabin in Cole’s painting, this time made from paper bearing the words of the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, which removed Native Americans from 3 million acres in Indiana Territory.
Works by Winslow Homer — “some of the greatest works ever made,” says Kusserow — show the human impact on Nature’s Nation — as oil is extracted, wars are fought, resulting in deforestation and other environmental impacts. With the 20th century comes the Dust Bowl, nuclear war, and increasing industry, and beginning with the first Earth Day, artists begin to show their concerns about the environment.
Cleverly, the “Nature’s Nation” organizers have compiled a website, “The Ecology of an Exhibition,” to scrutinize behind-the-scenes ecological costs of creating an exhibition: loans, printing a catalog, lighting, gallery walls, and painting. Any effort at calling attention to the crisis of our time comes with environmental costs.
After its Princeton debut, the exhibition travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. It is accompanied by a 448-page catalog with essays by the curators and 13 scholars, including artists Mark Dion and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.
Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, Princeton University Art Museum. Through January 6.
Author Naomi Klein, McCosh 50. With writer and environmental activist Ashley Dawson. Thursday, November 15, 5:30 p.m.
Gallery talk with India Young, Princeton University Art Museum. Friday, November 16, 2 p.m.
Conversation with artist Alexis Rockman, McCosh 10. Thursday, November 29, 5:30 p.m.
Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective, McCosh 10. Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
All events are free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu