• U.S.

Art: Face of the Land

4 minute read
Robert Hughes

American landscape painting languished in the closet until quite recently. The impulse to record the primal shapes of land, vegetation, light, water and sky, enormously important to American art in the 19th century, was tagged throughout the 1960s as regressive, unmodernist, dumb—everything, in fact, that an acrylic stripe on unprimed duck could never be. Photography had taken care of landscape; one could leave it to the National Geographic.

But today, with the revival of interest in realist painting, the swing has gone the other way, and recently the U.S. Government gave it a vigorous push. In early 1974 the Department of the Interior approached some 45 artists with the suggestion that they go on location throughout America and paint what they saw, provided that what they looked at fell under the department’s jurisdiction: mountains and swamps, plains, beaches, dams, railroads, national parks, sawmills, highways. California’s Joseph Raffael went to Hawaii and came back with large paintings of water lilies; New York City’s best painter of cityscape, John Button, stood at the foot of the Shasta Dam and rendered its spillway with a blue geometrical clarity; Richard Estes produced a view taken near Philadelphia’s Independence Square, B&O; the Rockies were full of photorealists in National Park Service Jeeps, and one intrepid soul, Vincent Arcilesi, tethered his easel to the windy lip of the Grand Canyon to record on the spot its labyrinthine wrinkles. The results—78 paintings, first seen at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. —go on view at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., this July 4th under the title America 1976, and the show will tour U.S. museums for the next two years.

It is not, of course, the Department of the Interior’s first act of art patronage. The preservation of Yellowstone National Park was largely caused by the public impact of the paintings of Thomas Moran, who a century ago worked at Yellowstone with the department’s surveyors. As a project, America 1976 is heavy with reminiscence of the 19th century, when the language of sublimity was formed from the raw material of landscape by such artists as Moran, Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt and the indomitable photographers (Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Jackson and the rest) who lugged their brassbound cameras thousands of miles to make documents of a nature that had scarcely been imagined, let alone spoiled, by man. The big difference, however, is that 19th century American topography had a use and was conceived in terms of that use: to supply information, the best available.

Not so with America 1976. A million postcards have been there before, and the landscape is vicariously familiar. Much of the show appears to have been painted from photographs, whether it was or not, for this is now the natural “look” of most American realism. If the exhibition is littered with homefried parodies of an earlier sublimity, it is because many of the artists could find only a conventional way of producing an “official” heroic landscape. Despite Art Historian Robert Rosenblum’s benevolent claim in the catalogue that “in most of these works, the mood is one of exhilarating adventure and head-clearing oxygenation,” the paint surface tends to go dead at the timber line: the mountain pictures, like Lowell Nesbitt’s 32-ft.-long Animas Valley, have a way of turning into generalized bombast. Among the exceptions are Ben Schonzeit’s enormous view of the continental divide and a pair of paintings of a Pueblo ruin in the Canyon de Chelly, in which Philip Pearlstein has given the bleached, taffeta-like flutings of the cliffs the dispassionate pore-by-pore inspection he usually reserves for the faces of well-off New York liberals. By the same token, the paintings of fauna and Willard Midgette’s enormous, stodgy rendering of a Navajo powwow fall very short of their 19th century prototypes, the exception, again, being a tenderly glittering portrait of a sockeye salmon by William Allan.

The memorable things in the show are the result of an almost domestic and quite unrhetorical vision: Neil Welliver’s beautifully controlled account, stroke by fat green stroke, dense as a Courbet, of a glade in the Maine woods; the late Fairfield Porter’s The Cliffs of Isle au Haul; the scribbled tremor of light on dark water in Jack Beal’s large pastel, Chincoteague Refuge; Jane Freilicher’s image of the Long Island wetlands stretched in their horizontal green solitude under a mild spring sky. Such pictures are the justification of this ambitious show be cause they affirm a way of inspecting landscape that only painting — and not photography — can give, offering an imagery through which one can begin to look again at what, being familiar, has almost turned invisible. ∙ROBERT HUGHES

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