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.
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
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
The Amon Carter is fortunate to have a wonderful corps of docents who work with visitors to the museum by giving regularly scheduled tours, sharing information at the Art Carts, and facilitating special tours. Several of our docents were in fine form Friday night as the museum celebrated the first day of spring with our members at the Spring Fling.
Come on by and take a tour of our permanent collection. Public tours take place at 2:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and begin at the Information Desk. No reservations are required; admission is free.
Our pre-school friends from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine came to visit today. It's hard to tell who has the most fun on these tours - the kids or the gallery teachers. Tours are available for students of all ages, and all of them are free.
People of all ages are always welcome. Are you bringing young people? Pick up an Art Activity Kit at the desk and have some fun in the galleries. Most afternoons you can find an Art Cart with a knowledgeable volunteer ready to talk to you about what's on the walls. Or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view!
The museum recently celebrated its first anniversary as part of the Google Art Project. We commemorated the occasion with our first online exhibition featuring Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood, plus other artists who captured this famous couple in their works. We will be posting more of these projects in the coming months.
You can find our Google Art Project page by clicking here or by using the menu bar and clicking on our Collections page. It’s your opportunity to browse our collection at your pace in your space.
Wilson is mainly known as illustrator of his monumental bird book American Ornithology, published in nine volumes from 1809–14, which is in the library’s holdings. Before starting American Ornithology, Wilson made a visit to Niagara Falls with two companions and wrote a long poem, The Foresters, based on the journey. The poem first appeared serially in The Port Folio before being published in book form in 1818. The poem provides one of the earliest descriptions of the American wilderness. This modern edition published by Bird & Bull Press on view now in the library reading room features original wood engravings by Wesley Bates that depict several scenes from the poem.
Alexander Wilson (1766–1813)
Wood engravings by Wesley W. Bates (b. 1952)
The Foresters: A Poetic Account of a Walking Journey to the Falls of Niagara in the Autumn of 1804
Newtown, Pa.: Bird & Bull Press, 2000
Late last year the research library acquired a unique artist book by Cynthia Brants, a member of the Fort Worth Circle. The pages fold out in accordion fashion and provide a moving-image-style recounting of a sometimes traumatic riding lesson. Though it appears she intended to make several of them, ours is the only known copy in existence. Yesterday library staff installed the book and accompanying printing blocks—a rarity to have both. This side-by-side arrangement gives visitors a chance to study the relationship of printing surface and resulting print. We invite you to come take a closer look in the library reading room during our public hours.
Cynthia Brants (1924–2006)
The Riding Lesson, or, The Nonzen of Riding a Moving Picture
Fort Worth, TX: The Mangle Press, 1959
Color woodcuts and accompanying wood printing blocks
The first Dust-to-Digital title to enter the research library's collection was Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950: Photographs from the Collection of Jim Linderman, published in 2009. We recently got the publisher's latest title, Lead Kindly Light: Pre-war Music and Photographs from the American South. With the other Dust-to-Digital titles in our collection, I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs, 1880-1955 and Never a Pal Like Mother: Vintage Songs & Photographs of the One Who’s Always True, we're clearly making a statement that we're a fan of the publisher's approach of marrying vintage photographs and music. Founded by Lance Ledbetter in 2003, Dust-to-Digital is currently operated by him and his wife April in Atlanta, Georgia. Though a strong impetus in their mission is preserving and making available rare recordings, we've chosen titles from their catalog that have strong photography content. The combination of period music and images really creates an immersive and magical experience. I encourage you to drop by the research library during our public hours to see (and hear) them--we're the only library in Fort Worth to offer these publications to the public.
It’s time for a confession: The thought of being without my various technological devices when something new and exciting happens sends a shiver down my spine. If a great event occurs and someone does not snap a shot for group consumption on social media, did it really happen at all? If an occasion of worldwide significance transpires, photographs proliferate, memes flourish, and we can all see the images in an instant.
I’ve been thinking about the inevitability of images in today’s society in relation to the periodical illustrations of Frederic Remington (1861–1909)—a leading visual recorder of the newsworthy events of his time. If Remington wanted to share with a wide audience a scene of cowboys on the range, a nasty skirmish between warring factions, or even a bicyclist passing a stagecoach on a dusty road, he had to engage in several modes of creation to ready his rendering for mass dissemination.
Frederic Remington, The Right of the Road-- A Hazardous Encounter on a Rocky Mountain Trail, 1900, 1961.246
He often captured what he witnessed in a one-of-a-kind grisaille (or, as we’d call it today, grayscale) oil painting, intentionally created without color so that it could be translated into print media. Imagine going to all that trouble! To take advantage of modes of reproduction, he might also do a drawing of the scene. The drawing would then be transferred by any number of skilled wood engravers in reverse onto the end grain of multiple wooden blocks, which were then inked and used to reproduce the image in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribners, or Collier’s.
Printing block and special conservation housing
Jodie Utter, the museum’s conservator of works on paper, recently collaborated with me on an installation of wood blocks used by periodical publishers to make several of Remington’s illustrations. Such blocks were typically destroyed after printing or were sanded down and reused to make other newsworthy images, so it is rare to see them intact. We invite you to take a look in the special drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries to see them and better appreciate the labor-intensive process of yesteryear image making.
When you take your next selfie and post it to Instagram, think of the road Remington’s images needed to travel for anyone to see them. Of course, this begs the question, “Were we better off when it was more difficult to spread an image far and wide?” After all, if my friends had to carve their photos of me into wood blocks in order to share them, I bet many an unflattering image would be lost in thin air!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
And now this from Jodie Utter:
What's In Our Drawers?
The Amon Carter has a varied and vast collection of masterworks; our largest collections, works on paper and photographs, are also the most sensitive to light. As the museum’s paper conservator, I spend a lot of my time documenting light-exposure histories for each paper object before it goes on display. Besides controlling temperature, air quality, and relative humidity, light gets most of my management attention. That said, the drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries are a paper conservator’s dream.
Why? Most of our art on paper collection is kept in dark storage with a fraction put on display each year. This is partly due to changing exhibitions, a finite display area, and most importantly to the history of display of individual objects—in other words, exposure to light. I will now put on my conservation hat –don’t leave—stay with me: Light damage is irreversible—and cumulative—therefore it’s of great importance to limit the display of light-sensitive works. This is why we keep close record of exactly how long a work has been on display since its arrival at the museum.
Inspecting the drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries
Okay, still with me? That’s why I love those drawers! If a work is displayed on the wall for four months (our typical length of exhibition) it would receive approximately 1000 hours of light exposure; however, in one of these drawers for one year, the work receives less than sixty hours (or approximately one week) of exposure. I love it. Of course, not everything can be displayed in a drawer, nor would I suggest such craziness. But it’s pretty great that when a work on paper is not being viewed, it’s in the dark! See why I love these drawers?
Jodie Utter, Conservator of Works of Art on Paper
The West courses through Larry McMurtry's heartland, and drawing from its river of stories, he has written thirty novels in a career spanning fifty-three years. His epic, Lonesome Dove, was awarded the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. His newest, The Last Kind Words Saloon, tells the story of the closing of the American frontier through two of its most famous figures, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
"I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book," McMurtry writes on the back jacket. "He famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I've done."
To illustrate the legend, McMurtry identified a special art work for the book jacket. He spoke with us recently about this and other images of the American West.
Did you or your publisher select Frederic Remington’s Fall of the Cowboy for the cover?
I chose it. I've known about this painting for a long time, and I've come to see it many times. I knew it was the perfect painting for this story. I've been arguing for years and years that the cattle industry was fatally flawed; the winters were too severe. People didn't start talking about the death of the cowboy, though, until the 1920s, but Remington’s painting demonstrated it in 1895. It obviously occurred to him that the end had come.
So the museum has been a destination for you over the years.
I've visited the Amon Carter a lot of times. It's a lovely museum. It's one of the reasons to come to Fort Worth. I like the city very much, lived there for a while, my son was born there. I've been in and out of there a lot and have always followed its art scene.
Why does the myth of the American West endure?
Because the imagery is so intrinsically powerful—the cowboys, the galloping horses, the vistas. My town of Archer City is really an oil-patch town, has been for well over 100 years. It's not a cattle town at all. And yet its own myth as a traditional western town persists because nobody wants to see pictures of roughnecks or drilling rigs.
I think of the imagery of Richard Avedon’s In the American West, which this museum commissioned. He made sure to photograph oilfield workers.
I go back to that work. It's my native imagery. It de-poeticized the landscapes of Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams. The most poetic image of all is Adams’s Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico . Avedon's book showed what the lives of the people who lived under that moon were actually like—it’s not mythic to them. Avedon’s book marks the beginning of the turning away from the pastoral that always characterized photography about the West. The moonrise is just as beautiful, but the book debunked the myth.
You have long been both a dealer and collector of books. Like the myth of the American West, will the printed book endure?
It's hard to say. Maybe, maybe not. The digital revolution isn't very old, but it's very powerful. I think book culture is necessary for a civilized society. I hope it will survive, because the kind of culture that books promote is a well-informed one, one that educates, not just intellectual education, but emotional education.
The library recently installed two very special books in the reading room. Though both offer botanical subjects, they represent divergent views of nature from two different time periods.
First up is Jim Dine’s exquisite set of drypoint engravings in book form modeled on the classic Temple of Flora first published in the very early nineteenth century by Dr. Robert John Thornton that combined images, poetry, philosophy, and botanical information. We’re also showing Dine’s bonded bronze sculptural box (bas-relief) made to hold the book, along with a single print on chine collé taken from the second state of the book’s frontispiece. We’re pleased to show this book as a tribute to longtime museum board president Ruth Carter Stevenson’s gardening interests and generosity to the museum. This copy came to the museum from Mrs. Stevenson in 2008.
Jim Dine (b. 1935)
The Temple of Flora: Twenty-eight Drypoint-engravings
Botanical notes compiled and poetry selected by Glenn Todd and Nancy Dine
Intaglio printing by R. (Robert) E. Townsend, Inc.
Bas-relief sculpture on lid: Flora’s Temple Gate cast in bonded bronze by Jim Dine
San Francisco: Arion Press, 1984
Edition of 150
Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson
Next we have a very rare volume produced by Edward Vischer in 1862 of lithograph views documenting what was thought to be a singular grove of Sequoias in California in an area near Yosemite (the images in this book relate to the small exhibition on the second floor of the museum featuring Yosemite images). Many consider this collection of lithographs to be among the rarest pictorial records of early California. Vischer, a German-born artist, spent a good deal of his career in the commercial trade business in Mexico and Peru before turning his artistic focus to California. The museum’s copy has a distinguished provenance: it once belonged to Thomas Streeter, a famous bibliographer and collector of Americana and Texana.
This passage from the introduction which expresses the spiritual power of viewing these trees:
To the spirit bowed with affliction, or harrowed with cares, a pilgrimage to these shadowy shrines offords most soothing consolation. Behold the evergreen summits of trees that have withstood the storms of more than three thousand years! Gaze on the ponderous and almost imperishable remains of their sires. While lost in wonder and admiration, the turmoil of earthly strife seems to vanish; and the true harbinger of Peace, the olive branch of Hope, returns to the mind, in the comparison of Time with Eternity.
Edward Vischer (1809–1878)
Vischer's Views of California: the Mammoth Tree Grove, Calaveras County, California, and its Avenues
Twelve lithographs by C. (Charles) C. Kuchel (1820–1866) after drawings by Vischer; printed by L.
(Louis) Nagel (b. 1817)
San Francisco: Edward Vischer,