In Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, Crystal Bridges’ upcoming summer exhibition, the ways in which humans have interacted with the environment are pondered and considered through an art-historic lens, including Robert Rauschenberg’s poster promoting the very first Earth Day in 1970.
The works in this post discuss and celebrate the Earth, and they elaborate on the many ways we can think about protecting and preserving it on this Earth Day 2019.
The United States began protecting and preserving land in the late-nineteenth century in order to maintain the country’s beautiful landscapes and powerful ecosystems. Many times, human nature alters the land, resulting in unexpected consequences.
Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, California (1871) by Carleton E. Watkins shows the largest hydraulic mining site in California during the nineteenth century. The mine pit has been preserved as a prime example of the Gold Rush in California, and it has even been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The canyon formed from the mining is nearly 7,000 feet long and as much as 3,000 feet wide.
Today, Malakoff Diggins is a State Park where people go to hike, picnic, and observe the scenic landscape. You can also see the physical changes that occurred to this landscape from the water erosion and explosions that occurred by looking at the different colored layers on the tall canyon walls. The ditch that is formed underneath the canyon walls caused by the hydraulic mining. This area was previously as tall and full of trees as the surrounding landscape. A site that was once destroyed has now become an area of historic preservation.
Cities are necessary to hold people and provide jobs, but cities can also tell a story about the environment through stories of overpopulation, sanitation, and pollution.
In Jacob Riis’s 1890’s book How the Other Half Lives, we see a group of photographs that show the tenement housing and neighborhoods of New York. This photograph, Bandit’s Roost, shows a neighborhood famous for its high crime rates and New York’s gangster-ridden tenement houses. Riis and others were determined to have this area destroyed because of unsanitary conditions. In 1895, the neighborhood was razed.
This photograph was taken at 59 ½ Mulberry Street in New York City. When the original neighborhood was destroyed, many people of lower class status lost their homes and their community as people were forced out of their homes and onto the streets. This did not improve the unsanitary conditions of New York. Today, this address is Columbus Park, a communal green space where people can sit, mingle, and enjoy the fresh air.
Federally protected lands are not exempt from human impact, although our impact is carefully monitored and regulated. Finally, in Thomas Moran’s Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park, we see a work of art almost identical to what the landscape looks like today, nearly 150 years after Moran painted it.
Today, however, tourists obscure the view at “Artist Point,” the spot where Moran might have painted from, to take their own photograph of this iconic landscape. Sometimes, federally protected natural places are harmed by the sheer number of people who visit and take a photograph of this idealized, “pristine” environment.
As you can see from this article, Nature’s Nation does not focus strictly on landscapes. In fact, many artists in the exhibition depict actual locations that existed then and still do today in some way, shape, or form. The ways in which they chose to paint these images, though, relied heavily on the political, economic, and social climate of the time.
View the artwork mentioned in this post with a visit to Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, opening May 25 through September 9, 2019.
Happy Earth Day!
This post was written by Rebecca Gilliland, Interpretations Intern.