History of Trauma in Environmental Art: A Short Introduction to the Hudson River School

At some point, hopefully in the next few weeks, a kind USPS delivery person will hand over my diploma from York University. Over the past two years I have been working on my Master of Arts in the History of Art degree, where I have focused on the history of trauma in the life of Joseph Beuys.

The mere act of earning my degree was a rollercoaster—from immigrating to a new country, my apartment building catching fire, the ever impending doom of COVID-19, and completing most of my degree from a country away. But today, I have completed all of my coursework, submitted my MRP, and now I’m just waiting for my diploma to arrive in the mail.

Today, I want to introduce you to my major topic of research and in subsequent posts I’ll give you all of the juicy details from two years of research.

Let’s go!

The legacy of environmental art is as old as art itself, and can be traced back to Paleolithic cave paintings and drawings. In order to keep my sanity, my research only considered artists using the land for inspiration in North America and Europe since the mid-1800s.

Since the colonization of the Americas, Europeans thought that the environment of the continent needed to be controlled. Colonizers aimed to tame and subdue the natural world. Differing from Indigenous communities, the colonizers built cities and community structures that harmed the landscape, and through their mere presence traumatized the Indigenous communities throughout the Americas through forced labor, relocation, spread of deadly disease as well as ecological destruction.

The Hudson River School painters documented the colonization and Modernization of the northeastern region of the United States. Working from 1825 to 1875, painters associated with the Hudson River School produced paintings that provided Americans with an “attractive self-image, a shared political identity and a reflection of their desire for moral and religious truths.” Inspired by the Catskill Mountains, the Adirondacks, Lake George, and the Hudson River, primarily as a means to transport paintings to the art market in New York City, the Hudson River painters used their canvases to deliver allegorical narratives about mid-century life in New York. The group valued close observation of nature and precision of details.

Thomas Cole, Destruction, 1834, oil on canvas.

Acclaimed founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of an Empire (1833-1836)series tells the allegorical narrative of the rise and fall of an empire, with the underlying message that pastoralism was the ideal phase of human civilization. Works like Cole’s and the rest of the Hudson River School spread appealing images and ideas as propaganda and justification for the traumatization of Indigenous communities. These paintings normalized the idea that Indigenous communities were “savage” or “primitive” and needed a helping hand, which was conveniently provided by the European colonists who promptly murdered, relocated, or inflicted other wounds on these communities.

The Salvage Paradigm was coined by early twentieth century anthropologist Jacob W. Gruber and refers to the necessity to preserve so-called weaker cultures so that their culture is not fully lost, but not favored in mainstream society.[1] The Hudson River School perpetuated this idea in their paintings. However, non-Native colonizers like the Hudson River School painters robbed Indigenous peoples of their past and their future through exploitation of their culture and redefining Indigenous identities in terms that their audience (of mostly European ancestry) would accept. Moreover, this principle does not allow for Indigenous communities to publicly claim their own heritage in terms of the legacy that has been passed down, as oftentimes their legacy has been muddled with the white man’s idea of who they should be.[2] The trauma of the land and Indigenous communities in the West can be further exemplified through the idea of Indigenous Place Thought, “which is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through extensions of these thoughts.”[3] If Indigenous histories are considered to be manifested in place, then their agency and spirit exist in all things and are related to one another and the collective story of our planet. Therefore, ecological devastation is an act of violence against not only humans, but all living creatures as well as the land itself.

[1] Jacob W. Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 72 no. 6 (1970): 1294.

[2] Stephen Warren and Ben Barnes, “Salvaging the Salvage Anthropologists: Erminie Wheeler-Coegelin, Carl Voegelin and the Future of Ethenohistory,” Journal of the American Society for Ethnography 65, no. 2 (April 2018): 189-191.

[3] Zoe Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” in Art of the Anthropocene, ed. Heather Davis and Etinne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015): 245-246.

Let’s Try Curating

Everyone finds their way to art history differently. Many find their way in through studio art programs or MFAs. Not me. As much as I love looking at art I have no desire to pick up a brush or pencil and create a masterpiece.

Other art jobs I can never see myself doing: being a curator. Curating is such a valuable career path, but for me it is too closely related to artistic practice. I’m not an artist and I’m not overly creative so the idea of being a curator is mentally exhausting. 

This is ironic as I’m in an art history MA that focuses on curatorial practice. Even though I don’t want to be a curator per say, I understand its intrinsic value to the art history community. As art historians and critics it is imperative that we understand how hangs, wall texture, and exhibition organization influence our interpretation of art and exhibitions. Plus, curatorial programs often include many studio and gallery visits (for free!), and I don’t know anyone in the art world who would be opposed to that. 

Anyway, this term I’m taking a course called curatorial practice where we explore contemporary trends in the field. Including using children’s toys and games to create virtual exhibitions. Having never considered curating an exhibition of my own I was grateful that I was paired with two great partners to co-curate our virtual exhibition. 

The curatorial vision behind our project was to juxtapose environmental art alongside images from a board game called Northwestern Passage. The game is a trope of the fabled Northwestern Passage that could connect the Atlantic to the Pacific via a waterway that enthused voyagers for centuries. Due to climate change, the ice caps are melting and providing passageways for cargo ships—bringing this exhibition into the twenty-first century. This exhibition is intended to educate viewers not only on the board game but also on relevant artists who produce art that focuses on climate change and ecological politics. More conceptual (and totally unfinished) this exhibition is meant to be continued over time both referencing new artists and breaking ecological news.

Obviously this assignment was just a way for us students to get our toes wet into the world of curation, and is by no means an accurate representation of what a day in the life of a curator is like. However, just this small deep dive into curatorial practice further assumed my disinterest in curatorial practice and opened my eyes to the huge endeavor that goes behind creating an exhibition.

Eco-Art Education: Environmental Artists and Land Preservation

It is impossible to say that all environmental art looks or functions the same. Beyond drawing inspiration from the land, basically all eco-artists create one-of-a-kind works that are only loosely related to other projects in theory, usually not in aesthetics. This diversity stems from artist’s differing perspectives of how to use the land. Some artists hold extreme reverence for the land and don’t alter the landscape when making art. Others, however, use the land as their canvas and move or destroy the Earth as they see fit.

Image result for spiral jetty

Robert Smithson is known for his neglect of environmental preservation. His most famous work, Spiral Jetty (1970), coils for 1,500 feet at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. During construction, Smithson displaced 6,000 tons of black basalt from the site. Smithson chose the lake due to its salinity and presence of microbes, which cause the water to turn a reddish hue. While not detrimental to the environment, the work conducted by Smithson for Spiral Jetty did include permanently moving and altering the natural landscape. Smithson built the Spiral Jetty during a period of time when the water levels in the lake was low. He hoped that his project would remain visible over time. As water levels rose over the years, preventative measures to care for the installation have been considered. However, none have been enacted. The Dia Art Foundation, one of the partners of the Spiral Jetty, suggests allowing the elements to interact with the installation. Erosion and other elemental factors are part of the whole story of the work and shouldn’t be altered, even if that means the work disappears over time.

Image result for surrounded islands christo and jeanne claude controversy

Environmentalists often criticize Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art as being harmful for wildlife. However, all of their projects undergo a painstaking review process by third party entities. For example, Surrounded Islands covered the edges of eleven islands in Biscayne Bay outside of Miami. The fabric was tethered to the islands and the sea floor. Working the the Army Corps of Engineers and representatives from the state of Florida, Christo designed a special fabric that would not harm the wildlife. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work in Biscayne Bay inspired those living in Miami to consider the fragility of their environment through community involvement. Most importantly, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s team removed over forty tons of debris from the islands during the installation process.

So, now here’s the question: should artists hold any social accountability for producing art that not only doesn’t harm the land, but activley benifits it?

The answer is obviously yes.

Within the constrains of capitalism there is only so much that each of us can personally do for the environment. I can use reusable metal straws and eat plant based, but I cannot curb carbon emissions from mega corporations or prevent catostrphic oil spills. Artists, too, have a social responsibility to the land in their personal lives as well as in their art practice.

So, even though Smithson didn’t wreck the land with his Spiral Jetty he didn’t tend to the environment either. Which, in my opinion, is telling of his true relationship with the Earth. Although attempting to reconnect with the spirituality of the land Smithson is distancing himself from the connections he so yearns for because he’s commodifying the land rather than using it as a partner in his work, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are attempting in Surrounded Islands.

Eco-Art Education: Environmental Art and Me

If you’ve been on my blog for a few minutes you’ll likely know that I’m really into the environment and how artists deal with our changing global climate. I thought it would be a good resource for me (and possibly you, who knows!) to document the ideas that got me interested studying this topic. I plan for this to be the first post in a series to help educate all of us on environmental art.

What is Environmental Art?

For as long as people painted imagery of their natural surroundings on rocks, environmental artists have existed. While this certainly intriguing, the study of environmental art typically refers to art made due to concerns of an impending climate crisis. Artists around the globe began creating works made from or referencing the physical world in the mid-twentieth century to draw attention to ecological issues. Many eco-artists explore the relationship between humans and the environment and the causes of climate change. Environmental art doesn’t have to look any specific way and can be made of a variety of materials. Some artists choose to work with recycled plastic, while others use natural materials such as plants, sand, or water.Eco-artists often place their work in inaccessible locations outside of the museum setting, which deemphasizes the need for the art market on their projects.

Major Works of Environmental Art?

Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield–A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982)

Two blocks from the World Trade Center Denes planted a two acre wheat field after many months of preparation. Sowed by hand, and maintained for four months Denes and her team harvested over one thousand pounds of wheat on land that was once a landfill.

Michael Heizer’s Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing (1970-1972)

Like many American land artists, Michael Heizer was interested in the transformation of Earth due to human interaction. In this work, Heizer drove a motorcycle in circles in Jean Dry Lake, Nevada. The patterns he created with his motorcycle were then photographed.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida (1980-1983)

Using six and half million square feet of pink woven fabric, Christo and Jeanne-Claude surrounded eleven islands in Biscayne Bay. For two weeks visitors were able to see the islands from the sky, land, water, and air due to built in causeways.

Why am I Interested in Environmental Art?

This one’s easy.

In the spring of 2018 I had a big tumble while roller blading, and concussed myself just in time for finals week. Somehow, I made it through all of my exams and essays but I was still feeling a little wonky from my injury. I spent the first few weeks of summer listening to YouTube vlogs at random. Somehow I came across lots of people who identified with the zero waste movement. These people recycled and reused as many of their everyday materials as possible in order to create less waste that will hopefully save our planet from ecological devastation.

I was intrigued.

That summer I also studied abroad in London and saw works by environmental artists, such as Andy Goldsworthy and Christo and Jeanne-Claude. So, while in the UK, the ideas of environmentalism and eco-art were at the forefront of my brain.

Once the school year began, it was time to choose a topic for my undergraduate thesis. It is probably no surprise that I landed on the reception of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s newest installation, the London Mastaba for my project. Now, in graduate school I’m still interested in environmentalism, but this time with how eco-artists visualized ideas surrounding climate change.