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Notes on Landscape/Painting/Photography/the Sublime

Two stories about landscape: In the first, a young man is maneuvering through a remote canyon in Utah when a boulder shifts suddenly and pins his right hand. He spends the next few days chiseling away at the boulder until he realizes he is going to die if he doesn’t get help soon. Using his body as leverage, he breaks the bones in his forearm. He cuts off his lower arm with a pocketknife and hikes back to civilization. In the second story, a group of men are skiing in the backcountry in California when one skis off a precipice. His companions make their way down to him. He is alive, but hurt. One of the men pulls out his cell phone to see if it works—and it does. They call for help and the man is rescued by helicopter.

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William Henry Jackson went on seven expeditions with the Hayden geological survey. It was difficult, carrying photographic equipment into the wilderness and developing images there. But, “We were, so far as records show,” Jackson writes about Mammoth Hot Springs, “the first white men ever to see those bubbling caldrons of nature, and I found myself excited by the knowledge that next day I was to photograph them for the first time.”

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The Hudson River School painters hiked mountains, climbed trees, and paddled rivers and streams. But the images they produced weren’t made outdoors. Many of them were painted in the Tenth Street Studio Building in Lower Manhattan. By the 1860s, it was like a small landscape-painting factory. Artists like Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt had studios there; and, at the height of their fame, commanded $25,000 for a painting, allowing them to build mansions on the banks of the Hudson.

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Edmund Burke published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757. “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature,” Burke wrote, “when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror […] no passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” But Burke didn’t necessarily think the sublime could be expressed in pictures. “It is in my power to raise a stronger emotion by the description than I could do by the best painting,” he wrote. Nonetheless, artists were soon painting landscapes that evoked terror: a shipwreck in the Arctic, slaves being thrown into the sea; the Donner Pass in the High Sierras.

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Robert Smithson called the Greensward Plan for Central Park an “earth sculpture” and Olmstead “America’s first ‘earthwork artist.’” After all, Smithson wrote, “Olmstead made ponds, he didn't just conceptualize about them.” Olmstead’s creation in New York was “recycled,” but Smithson still considered something like Yosemite “wilderness” because it wasn't made by human hands—although, “Today, Yosemite is more like an urbanized wilderness with its electrical outlets for campers, and its clothes lines hung between the pines.” Smithson thought of the Western desert as “less nature than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries.” Olmstead, for his part, hated California and called the desert “detestable.”

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When Smithson wrote about Central Park in 1973, he remarked that “the Ramble has grown up into an urban jungle, and lurking in its thickets are ‘hoods, hobos, hustlers, homosexuals’ and other estranged creatures of the city.” The picturesque pastoral landscape had been invaded, “a clump of bushes can also be a mugger’s hideout.” Walking through the park, he saw graffiti on boulders, “aggressive” squirrels, wild dogs, a brook “choked with mud and tin cans,” a pond “aswirl with oil slicks, sludge, and Dixie cups.” He suggested dredging out the mud, treating it “in terms of art, as a ‘mud extraction sculpture.’”

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Two more stories about landscape: In the first, a young man gorged with Thoreau and Jack London treks into the Alaskan wilderness with little more than a .22 caliber rifle and a ten-pound bag of rice. After 112 days alone in the wilderness he starves to death. His sixty-seven-pound body is found, along with a diary, in an abandoned bus. His story is made into a best-selling non-fiction book, then a movie. In the second story, two young men go for a walk in the New Mexico desert and get lost. One of the men, according to the survivor, begs his friend to kill him, which the friend does. This one is also made into a movie, which reviewers compare to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

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Landscape might be called something else now: the environment, for instance. The environment hides things: radiation, contaminated groundwater. Natural gas pipelines from the Gulf of Mexico cross under the Hudson, virtually invisible. A defense control center is hidden in a mountain in Colorado. The Internet was about making power disappear into the landscape, decentralizing it. “The term ‘cyberspace,’” Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes, “seems fatuous because it is precisely space that has been eliminated, cyber or any other.” By comparison, in Gainsborough’s 18th-century landscape paintings, power was right there in the picture: oak trees signified ship masts and Britain’s naval-colonial supremacy; hardworking Protestants in the foreground were supporters of enlightened land management.

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The question of what it means to make a painting after photography has been answered a number of ways. Painting is dead. Painting will outlive photography. What is painting? What is photography? Peter Osborne wrote that Gerhard Richter’s “return to the source of the Crisis (the displacement of painting from its naturalistic representational function)” in his photo-paintings is essentially an “affirmation of photography by painting.” Richter’s paintings are “negatives of paintings, negatives of photographs.” On the other hand, Gilbert-Rolfe is more practical: the answer is not that there’s “no need for painting after photography, but that there’s no need for drawing.”

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The young man who cut his arm off has a website, of course. He wrote a bestselling book titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” He’s been paid to do motivational speaking, to share his “inspirational survival story,” and to be a spokesman for a beer company. In his book, he admits he was foolish to ignore the basic mountaineering precept: tell someone where you’re going when heading into the wilderness. Or perhaps he didn’t think the United States contained a place that remote anymore.

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Excerpted from an essay originally published in Cameron Martin: Analogue (Brooklyn: GHava Press, 2009).

Contributor

Martha Schwendener

MARTHA SCHWENDENER is an art critic for the New York Times.

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