As I sat solemnly in the audience for the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art symposium on the 19th-century American landscape painter Sanford Robinson Gifford, I could only shake my head at the slides -- "What a crying shame!"
Gifford was a late exponent of the Hudson River school. His still, broad compositions are suffused by that viscerally affecting and spiritually moving golden light, emblematic of the era that Columbia University art historian Barbara Novak called "luminism," naming retrospectively a school of post-Civil War American painting.
This is the great canon of American landscape art, pursued by Protestant "knights of the brush" whose works sacralized the nation's wilderness. What you are meant to see is God's country, and Gifford is a purist about it. What is absent in these paintings is what is now very present in the vistas today. Gifford paints no farms, no towns, no roads, no commerce of shipping or manufacture. The only people ("staffage" in landscape parlance) are hunters and Indians -- the innocent original humans.
When these humans do appear, camouflaged amidst the leaves, they are puny beside the old-growth trees of the 19th-century American landscape. Occasionally, these trees appear as stumps. In one great painting of ca. 1865, the museum wall label takes the stumps in the foreground as allusions to the dead of the Civil War -- the "harvest of death." The stumps were surely also there to see, as the nation's northeastern industrial infrastructure superheated to beat the rebel South.
I feel a misery before these works, of course, because this landscape is gone, and no one alive has ever seen it. "The Claudean mode," one art historian at the symposium said of the theater-like compositional format mastered by the 17th-century Rome-based French landscape painter Claude Lorraine and similarly beloved of the Hudson River painters, "is always retrospective." Gifford's evolved formats, however, are not Claudean. His point of view is panoramic -- the eye rises into the sky to survey his golden lands.
And as art historian Allan Wallach discussed how Gifford's perspectives were likely inspired by the popular panorama entertainments, and the painter's attention to the conventions of "view" painting and tourist prints, I thought of another landscape artist presently showing who uses utilitarian methods of cartographic delineation.
In contrast, the point of view of the globetrotting eco-artist Peter Fend is orbital. His staple image is the map and the satellite photo. Fend recently completed an installation at American Fine Arts on West 22nd Street in Chelsea, and a work by his collaborative group founded in the late 1970s, Ocean Earth Construction Development (OECD), was in a group exhibition at Apexart in Tribeca.
Just as 18th and 19th century military schools taught landscape drawing, satellite imaging has been driven by the military imperative of surveillance. The intention of Fend's aerial views, however, is to advance the case for planet-wide bioremediation. Fend's scheme these days is simple: his work promotes "biomass energy generation" -- that is, the production of methane from composting seaweed, for instance -- within bioregional watersheds worldwide. This mode of energy production, as he succinctly pointed out at a panel for the Apexart show "Adaptations," requires a healthy ecosystem. Conversely, extractive carbon-based fuel production and consumption -- i.e., an oil-based economy -- requires ecological ruin.
The OECD work in the Apexart show is, as befits this show of "experimental architecture," a proposal for Jamaica Bay which would replace the runway extension built for the obsoleted Concorde airplane. The seaweed-growing rig OECD plans is, Fend notes, "not an industrial system; it would be a symbolic system." To a questioner who asked if this kind of energy production was economically feasible, Fend replied, "The macroeconomic question is, what is the cost of oil? War."
Landscape at home is tied to war abroad. The first of the Hudson River school, Thomas Cole wrote of the "copper-hearted barbarians" and "dollar-godded utilitarians" who were destroying the land he loved. As nature disappears, Cole feared, so would God be forgotten. That devastation was but a piccolo prelude to the 20th century wasting of the West, the "national sacrifice zones" of atomic weapons development described in Mike Davis' recent book of essays Dead Cities. (The group CLUI, which has toured and documented many of these wastelands, has just opened an office in upstate New York.)
Gifford's oeuvre is a grand elegy for the eastern forests. It's also an ideal vision, the American version of a peopleless Augustinian "city of god" -- a utopia of pristine wilderness, a God-like natural system. For the idealist Victorians, esthetic culture led to moral nobility, which was a precondition of a free society. Landscape painting was a leading element in this elitist program, since in the words of the 18th century Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards: "The immense magnificence of the visible world, its inconceivable vastness, the incomprehensible height of the heavens" reveals the glory of God's work.
For OECD, the view from the height of the heavens reveals possibilities for change. Fend is a materialist, with a scientific eye. He is unreligious, and his politics are devoid of ideology. Instead his outlook is Bismarckian, since his work is a plan to refigure the world. Yet the eco-punk millenarian vision Fend articulated 20 years ago echoed Gifford's peopleless world. Fend envisioned endless vistas of wild land, thronged by animal herds, with urban megastructures rising on stilts, compact energy-efficient cities with minimal "footprints" on the land. (It's science fiction, really, like Miyazaki's anime feature Castle in the Sky, where the lost city is kept aloft above a war-torn world by a mysterious anti-gravitational mineral.)
Fend's work at American Fine Arts, in the heart of the "glue-trap called the art world" (his words), is based on his hand -- he is a masterful freehand cartographic delineator. He is prominent because of his ideas, and single-minded dedication to a world system of renewable energy. (In this sense, Gifford's all-suffusing golden light might be taken as a prefiguration of a world run on renewable sun energy, rather than fossilized sun energy.) Gifford was a prominent elegist of his day, and his work remains lastingly popular with esthetic conservatives. Fend, a neo-conceptual futurist, is without honor in his despoiled land, although Plymouth University has given him a year-long fellowship.
"Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford" debuted at the Metropolitan Museum this winter and is due to appear at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Mar. 6-May 16, 2004.
Peter Fend, "Correspondence," Jan. 17-Feb. 21, 2004, at American Fine Arts, 530 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
"Adaptations," curated by Craig Buckley, appeared Jan. 7-Feb. 7, 2004, at Apexart, 291 Church Street, New York, N.Y. 10013