Landscape Truisms: One Curator’s Working List

Last week, I found myself challenged with the task of speaking to our astute docents on the subject of American landscape. The prospect of saying anything overarching was daunting, as the story of landscape and the American painting tradition is as broad and vast as the mountain vistas depicted by American artists.

I had just finished writing and speaking about contemporary artist Jenny Holzer and the aphorisms, or truisms as she calls them, that she broadcasts via giant walls of light on the surfaces of great buildings, carves indelibly into granite, or silk-screens onto large canvases. Perhaps I was influenced by my study of Holzer to share with the docents short, digestible truths of my own invention that seem to reasonably summarize the American landscape artist’s approach.

I began the formulation of my truism list by revisiting William Cullen Bryant’s poetic advice to his buddy Thomas Cole, the symbolic forefather of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting. In his 1829 sonnet To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe, Bryant characterizes Europe as having “everywhere the trace of men.” He directs Cole’s attention to the American landscape, our untouched wilderness, as the defining characteristic of our fledgling nation, reminding the artist to revel in European scenes while keeping “that earlier, wilder image bright.” Put another way: Unspoiled nature was an expression of cultural and national identity.

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Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Hunter's Return, 1845, oil on canvas

What America had to offer in those days that seemed unique was the sublimity of pristine nature, and landscape painting provided one manner of expressing that identity. And so, a little bit inspired by Holzer’s truisms, I showed the docents a slide of my own proclamations based on aspects of the landscape works in our collection:

OUR LANDSCAPE DEFINES US

CAPTURE IT BEFORE IT’S GONE—or if there have been intrusions, eliminate the traces of human intervention.

ART LEADS TO PRESERVATION

WHEN CIVILIZATION INTRUDES, GO FARTHER AFIELD—WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CONTINENT

If you are a landscape artist and your subject matter is disappearing to industry and the march of civilization, show it as it was, with a foreboding sense of what’s to come. Go farther west to find the limits of so-called progress. If technology and tourism have already gotten there, paint them out. See if you can aid in preservation by alluding to the future destruction. Capture it all before it disappears. And, when you have run out of American exotic locales, travel abroad.

This week, when I move forward chronologically, my plan is to add the following to the truism list:

SEEK REFUGE FROM THE STRAINS OF MODERN LIFE. GO TO THE SHORE. HAVE A PICNIC. SEEK ARTIST COLONIES. GO WEST.

A LANDSCAPE PAINTING CAN BE ABOUT MORE THAN NATURAL SPLENDOR, IT CAN BE AN URBAN LANDSCAPE OR AN INDUSTRIAL ONE. THERE’S BEAUTY IN THOSE, TOO.

TURN TO ABSTRACTION

CHRONICLE OUR OWN DESTRUCTION

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Skeet McAuley (b. 1951), Untitled, from the Native America Series, 1984-86, dye destruction print

Though the proclamations may not prove accurate in all cases, putting them in front of our docents seems as good a way as any to connect to the rich holdings of American views we have here at the Amon Carter.

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator