History of Trauma in Environmental Art: Connections between Beuys and af Klint

Perhaps, the most widely known Anthroposophist artist in our time is Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). In the fall of 2018, the Guggenheim Museum presented the first solo exhibition in the United States of af Klint’s work. Af Klint was born in Sweden and formally trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. The art that af Klint made for the public was typically landscapes and botanical illustrations. Her private art, however, was abstract in style and considered offensive by many in her life, including Steiner, as she used mediumship as a method for her painting. At her death, af Klint arranged for her art to be preserved and not shown until fifty years after her death. Her work was first shown at an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1985––only forty-one years after her death. Influenced by Anthroposophy, of course, af Klint lived through and was inspired by scientific breakthroughs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as the discovery of the atom and the invention of the x-ray. Moreover, she survived the Spanish flu pandemic as well as two world wars, which might also be reflected in her work.

Hilma af Klint, No.1, Childhood, 1907, oil on canvas.

Af Klint is best known for her automatic painting, which is a process of painting where she put herself in a deep spiritual state that was guided by the High Ones––primarily Amalel, a spirit personality. She explained these paintings as, “pictures [that] were painted directly though me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict. Nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke. Af Klint’s largest paintings were completed in 1907 and represent the “four stages of life and humanity’s connections to the universe.” The four paintings, Childhood, Youth, Adulthood, and Old Age are large tempura paintings mounted on canvas. The paintings include mandalas, flowers, and various shapes with deep symbolism describing the Axiom of Maria, a concept for a sequence that follows “the dynamic unfolding from unconsciousness, to the emergence of one-sided consciousness, to the cognition of the opposites of consciousness and unconsciousness, and finally to the integration of duality into a new conscious attitude through the process of individualization.”

Using Steiner’s definitions of the body, af Klint’s paintings focused on the astral body and its connections to other realms of existence as seen through her communication with the High Ones. Even though af Klint’s existence in the art world during her life was a radical act (af Klint was an unwed woman making a living as an artist at the turn of the twentieth century), her art was not focused on politics and social reform. This vastly differs from Beuys approach. Beuys valued spirituality as well, but instead of using mediumship to connect with other unworldly aspects, like mediumship, he believed that spirituality was innate in the world around us and could be grasped by connecting with nature. Moreover, Beuys’s art practice was focused on politics and social reform, unlike af Klint who used her art to connect with the High Ones.

History of Trauma in Environmental Art: The Esoteric Origins of Beuys

While serving in the Nazi Luftwaffe, Beuys aircraft was downed by Allied forces. This crash gave Beuys the perfect opportunity to reinvent himself and create a narrative that centered the artist as a worldly man with knowledge of mystical ideas from both German and Indigenous communities. For his entire career Beuys drew from this crash in his artwork––either purposefully appearing as a shaman with inherent connections to the mystic or as a lecturer explaining these ideas as a progressive take on the end of Modernism. Either way, Beuys’s entire career was set on course due to this crash and the trauma that ensued.

Returning to civilian life, Beuys slowly became interested in the thoughts of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the founder of an esoteric religion known as Anthroposophy. Steiner philosophized about the connections between science and spirituality, which favored both individualism and the arts. He also advocated for education reform, sustainable agriculture, and equality across race, religion, and political affiliation. Steiner’s ideas focused on the nature of the human being and he attempted to understand the world through the scientific method and rational thought. In particular, the nature of the human body was of utmost importance due to the ability of the physical body to hold both the “etheric body” (the body that gives life) as well as the “astral body” (the body that holds consciousness).

Beuys considered the end of Modernism to be a positive transition to a culture that supports an expanded definition of art, where everyone could participate in both art making and democratic processes simultaneously. Beuys summarized the problems of a modern world by saying there is a “complexity between the power of money and the power of the state.” If Beuys had his way, society would move to focusing on the collective, which would move economic endeavors away from ecological destruction, profiting off of minorities, and a focus on material wealth. Beuys’s deviation would stray from a capitalist global economy to an economy that favored art, equality, and ecological restoration.

For Beuys and Steiner, Modernism arose at the point where high modern art and the esoteric meet. Modernism is often disconnected from spiritual life, and both Steiner and Beuys attempt to bring these connections that are often dismissed in favor of rationalism to the forefront. In terms of defining Modernism for both Steiner and Beuys a definition of innovative, future-oriented art production that valued global religious traditions and systems should suffice.

History of Trauma in Environmental Art: Art in the West during the 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, artists, particularly in the western United States, began modifying the land to create art with the intention to remove their art from the New York art scene. Bored with minimal art and disenchanted with the art world at large, land artists, such as Robert Smithson (1938-1973), turned to the Earth for artistic inspiration. Concerned with distancing themselves from the consumer art circuit, and not environmental preservation, land artists used the Earth as a form of expression. Oftentimes, these artists took advantage of the land, as exemplified through Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty, which made physical and semi-permanent scars into Rozel Point on the banks of Utah’s Great Salt Lake

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, basalt rock, salt crystals, earth, water.

Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty with the intent, and knowledge, that the artwork would eventually fade back into the Lake. Smithson referred to this idea as entropy. For Smithson, entropy is the idea that his projects would eventually fade back into their original state of existence and erase all evidence of his alteration of the landscape. Spiral Jetty was built near Golden Spike National Historic site, the location where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads first linked in 1869 creating the first overland rail route across the United States. The location of Spiral Jetty was not a coincidence and can be linked to American ideals of Manifest Destiny and the supremacy of man over nature. Smithson removed over six thousand tons of basalt and earth from the site of the installation to form a fifteen-hundred-foot-long spiral that coils counterclockwise off of the shore. The artist, in part, chose the specific location due to its unusual geologic properties––the presence of microbes causing a reddish tint to the water.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wall of Oil Barrels: Iron Curtain, 1962, oil barrels.

While American artists were disregarding the value of the land and modifying it to suit their tastes, environmental art looked different in Europe. At this point Christo and Jeanne-Claude were still reeling from the traumas of the war and produced art that reflected this mindset. Aiming to connect with the environment Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed Wall of Oil Barrels-Iron Curtain in 1962, an installation comprised of eighty-nine oil barrels on a street––rue Visconti––in central Paris. Rue Visconti was chosen as the installation site because creating a barricade on this street would cut off traffic between rue Bonaparte and rue de Seine during rush hour in the city, which blocked most of the traffic on Paris’ Left Bank during the evening it was on display. Cutting off the flow of traffic through the city caused a major disruption for the public and mirrored the current crises in Algeria and in Berlin, namely the Algerian War and the construction of the Berlin Wall. The barrels were installed on their side, unaltered, in their original paint colors, featuring rust that had naturally formed on the barrels from their exposure to the elements.

Joseph Beuys, 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of Administration, 1982, basalt stones, oak trees.

Joseph Beuys transformed the area near Kassel, Germany, by planting seven thousand oak trees in association with documenta VII in 1982 for a project called 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of Administration. As with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, 7,000 Oaks focuses on the trauma from World War II. While Christo and Jeanne-Claude use the trauma involved specifically from the construction of the Berlin Wall and how this impacted the Germans, in 7,000 Oaks Beuys was referencing the trauma of the land rather than the people. Throughout the war the landscape around Kassel, specifically, was damaged from bombings. Beuys wanted to restore the land to its pre-war state as an attempt to heal the trauma that was caused. In tandem with over five hundred volunteers, Beuys and his team planted seven thousand oak trees that were each marked with a single basalt stone. The project itself took over five years to complete and continued even after Beuys’s death. Beuys was a proponent of social sculpture, which was derived from Anthroposophy and Marxist thought. Social sculpture is an expanded concept of art where everyone should be allowed democratic participation in the art world. To Beuys, art was no longer solely defined as painting and sculpture, but considered any intentional creative practice that bridged the gap between life and art. Beuys and his idea of social sculpture wanted creativity and art to be the driving force of the economy rather than labor, as endorsed by the capitalists. Beuys thought that 7,000 Oaks and other associated works would unlock a radical societal shift that would lead towards environmental preservation on a global scale.

According to Beuys his entire myth of rebirth began while fighting for the Nazis when his plane was shot down in northern Crimea, near present day Znamianka. After the crash, Beuys was rescued by a group of nomads known as the Tatars who were disenfranchised by the Soviet Union and therefore interested in helping the Nazi pilot. In his narrative of rebirth, Beuys asserted that he lived with the Tatars for twelve days, and supposedly the Tatars became so fond of Beuys that he was invited to stay with them when the Germans came to his rescue. Beuys’s myth of self-creation states that the Tatars rescued him from his crashed aircraft, cared for his wounds using a salve made from animal fat, and kept him warm with felt. The well-known story of the Tatar’s rescuing Beuys and nursing him back to health emerged in the 1970s. This tale has been proven false by many scholars and journalists, but still bolstered his public persona through attachment with a heroic survival story.

The land art that was being made in the American West in the mid-twentieth century glorified whiteness and the heteropatriarchy without equal consideration of Indigenous communities that the land belongs to. Even in Europe, environmental artist and activist, Beuys, was plagued by his own personal trauma that forced him to confront his wartime deeds. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were carrying the burden of those trapped by the Berlin Wall, and those who were living in a war zone in Algeria. The European artists were using their own experiences, trauma, and the recent memories of their fellow countrymen to create art that explored their collective trauma and, in the case of Beuys, proposed ways to heal.

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.