Fine Art: 300 Years of American Art Reinterpreted

There’s a treasure trove of fine art awaiting you in the Princeton University Art Museum. It represents artists from more than three centuries who were aware of environmental evolution and chose to document those changes in more than 120 paintings and drawings, in sculpture, prints and photographs, and in furniture and works of decorative art.

Displayed in three chronological eras from the colonial era to the present and accompanied by informative text panels, the co-curators Karl Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock, offer facts and insights that guide visitors through this massive show to a fresh understanding of the propensity of American artists to reflect upon the changing environment and to document their responses to the evolution of change they were witnessing.

Opening with a text panel clearly reminding us “The land on which this building stands is part of the ancient homeland and traditional territory of the Lenape people,” the exhibition quickly moves to Albert Bierstadt’s idealized “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite” and then on to “Fallen Bierstadt” by contemporary artist Valerie Hegarty. Hanging askew, a burned, bent and broken frame unsuccessfully holds the deteriorating landscape as it spills onto the floor in broken shards and fragments. In accompanying text, the curators say, “Fallen Bierstadt urges us to imagine nature differently, not as a romantic escape from the world but as something real, fragile, and subject to interpretation.” This sets the tone for all else you will see in the exhibition.

“Ruth Gleaning,” by Randolph Rogers, an exquisite marble sculpture, begins the conversation about the impact humanity’s incessant march of progress has wreaked on the environment. The inclusion of this sculpture in the exhibition addresses the mining that was necessary for its creation.

Aaron Douglas’s painting “Song of the Towers” points to the pollution caused by industrialization and the effect it has on minority communities that often must live where the air they breathe is heavy with pollutants. And Subhankar Banerjee’s aerial photograph taken in 2002 shows hundreds of pregnant caribou migrating toward calving grounds in northern Alaska described on the accompanying label as, “a site where oil companies and some members of Congress advocate for petroleum extraction.”  

Looking back to how the settlers pushed into Native American lands, Thomas Cole’s painting, “Home in the Woods” portrays a family living peacefully in their log cabin built in “vacant territory,” seemingly disregarding “the legacy of millions of exterminated or exiled Native Americans.” But displayed with Cole’s painting is Mohawk born Alan Michelson’s “Home in the Wilderness,” a cabin model constructed using rolled paper logs upon which Michelson wrote words of the 1809 Treaty which removed Native Americans from three million acres in Indiana Territory.

George Catlin’s painting, “Dying Buffalo, Shot with a Arrow” and Albert Bierstadt’s “The Last of the Buffalo,” a photogravure with applied watercolor based on his 1888 painting addresses the attitude of the time which, according to label text, project “a nostalgic sense of historical inevitability by consigning bison and Native peoples to the past.” A grisly photograph by an unidentified photographer exhibited nearby shows a man standing on a pile of hundreds of buffalo heads and bones at what the label says was at a Michigan factory “that converted them to carbon for various industrial uses.” And also exhibited nearby is an enormous buffalo robe created by an unidentified Lakota woman at Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakota Territory.

Produced for the US Centennial in 1876, “Century Vase,” porcelain with paint and gilt decoration, by Karl L. H. Muller and manufactured in Brooklyn in 1876, has a pair of bison head handles, thus confirming, the label states, “the legendary status of the species, which by then was nearly extinct.”

Winslow Homer’s celebrated painting of the Civil War, “Prisoners from the Front” portrays the Confederates as “dirty and disheveled” as they stand in a battle-scarred field. And nearby is Andrew B Brady’s albumen silver print showing the scarred Gettysburg battlefield where bullet-riddled trees give testimony to the environmental ravages of war.

Displayed fittingly near the end of this astounding exhibition is Isamu Noguchi’s bronze, “This Tortured Earth.” Noguchi, according to exhibition materials, was a child of Japanese immigrants giving him a cross-cultural experience he called “the tragedy of war.” Referring to the “perforated epidermal surface” of this sculpture, the accompanying text panel says this “World War II-era sculpture animates the earth as a vital entity inviting empathy and identification–a fragile, damaged mirror of its living inhabitants.”

This sweeping collection is what exhibition materials define as “a major reinterpretation of American art that examines both iconic masterpieces and rarely seen objects through a lens uniting art historical interpretation with environmental history, scientific analysis and the dynamic field of ecocriticism.” There are works by more than 100 artists who, in addition to those already mentioned here, include, among many others, John James Audubon, George Bellows, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Theaster Gates, Louisa Keyser, Dorothea Lange, Ana Mendieta, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Maya Lin, Frederic Law Olmsted, Charles Wilson Peale, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Alexis Rockman, Robert Smithson, Carleton Watkins and the three generations of Wyeth painters.

A 448-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It includes essays by the curators and contributions by thirteen distinguished scholars, artists and environmental theorists. There will be a Film Screening and Discussion at 2 p.m. Friday November 9 at the Garden Theater on Nassau Street. Talks, a panel discussion and a symposium are scheduled. For details check the museum’s website at artmuseum.princeton.edu.

At the close of this exhibition, the collection will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment

WHERE: Princeton University Art Museum, in the heart of Princeton campus

WHEN: Through January 6, 2019. Hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday,

                        Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m., Sunday

CONTACT: 609-258-3788. artmuseum.princeton.edu

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