NEW HAVEN — At a time when the legacy of racism of colonialism are returning to the center stage of cultural politics in art institutions across the United States, it is difficult to conceive of exhibition-making as a neutral field that does not participate in the configuration (and, often, the justification) of history. Think about not only the scant presence but also the type of representation garnered by African-Americans and Native Americans — often marginal figures like servants, slaves, and background motifs — in the historical painting show in the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Art. People of color in the United States have fought and are still fighting a long battle not just for acceptance but greater visibility, where race and class inequalities have dominated the cultural landscape since at least the colonial period. Accordingly, whenever art institutions take on chapters of American history as subjects for exhibitions, even those that are strictly descriptive and monographic, a bare minimum of critical engagement with the historical realities of racism in America is expected.
This kind of critical engagement is so completely absent at Yale University Art Gallery’s exhibition Yosemite: Exploring the Incomparable Valley that visitors could almost wonder whether it’s actually an ironic montage where wall texts with truly incomparable passages are text paintings by the likes of Sam Durant or Christopher Wool, meant to draw attention to the country’s profound history of systemic racism and the extermination of Native Americans, instead of away from it. But the exhibition, organized by Mark D. Mitchell, the curator of American painting and sculpture at Yale, is anything but funny.
Installed in a dimly illuminated space on the fourth floor of the gallery, the show opens with Alfred Bierstadt’s large oil painting “Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail” (ca. 1873), which commemorates the 150th anniversary of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and the 100th anniversary of the creation of America’s National Park Service, with a focus on one of America’s most iconic landmarks, the Yosemite Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. This sets the stage for the exhibition, which makes the American West Coast and its many natural marvels seem sublime in its pristine emptiness, a holy land waiting to be conquered.
The photographs on view are awe-inspiring, unique, and impressive, but the exhibition is, shall we say, rather discreet with its depiction of historical events. For example: “The Miwok people of the central Sierra Nevada Mountains have inhabited the area of the Yosemite Valley for thousands of years. Violent conflicts between Native Americans and the miners of the Gold Rush during the late 1840s and rapacious development of the area by residents of the new state of California — established in 1850 — forced change.” Let me translate that. Here, “violent conflicts” means extermination, “rapacious development” means extermination, and “forced change” means, well, also extermination. The wall texts refer almost casually to the annihilation of Native Americans, unwilling to let this distract viewers from the exhibit’s noble message: “Over the course of the later 19th century, however, naturalist John Muir led a transformation of the nation’s perception of Yosemite by drawing attention to its uniqueness. Instead of viewing the landscape as a resource to be exploited by profit, Muir sought to appreciate Yosemite as a means to better understand nature itself — an approach that changed the direction of the natural sciences in America.”
It’s interesting to hear that, so early on, the United States changed its mind about seeing the landscape as a resource to be exploited in the quest for profit, because this message was certainly forgotten again, as one can easily tell from watching the evening news.
The exhibition couldn’t be any more revealing in its lack of actual native presence. In the first room, Bierstadt’s canvas stands across from a selection of plants from his painting, identified by the School of Forestry and the Peabody Museum: Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, White Fir, Greenleaf Manzanita. Other objects complement the photographs, such as the 1870 book The Heart of the Continent by Fritz Hugh Ludlow, who traveled to Yosemite with Bierstadt; watercolors by James Madison Alley; and albumen prints by Carleton E. Watkins. There are no people to be seen anywhere except at the bottom of Bierstadt’s large canvas, where there are depictions of some visitors who came west after the completion of the transcontinental railway. Without any reference to their extermination, Native Americans reappear in the idyllic setting of Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s small lithographs (1866), seeming to be little more than background characters in an epic drama.
In the second room is a set of baskets made by the Miwok people, with the only credit given to “Mary,” who is shown in a tiny photograph on loan from the Yosemite Museum. There’s also wall text that tells, without an image, about Lucy Telles, another Miwok basket-maker, who was awarded first prize at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. (Allow me to translate again: She was awarded a prize for being “exotic” at a colonial kind of theme park.) That’s about as far as Native Americans go in the story this show is telling.
It is through exhibitions like this that you can see the profound disconnect between institutions and the history they are entrusted with. The gallery’s collection began in 1832 with a gift of 100 paintings by John Trumbull, and it has since grown to semi-encyclopedic status with a bit of everything, from the tiles of a synagogue in Doro-Europa (third-century Syria) to modern-day Rothkos. It’s astonishing that an institution that has been host to major exhibitions of modern and contemporary art could mount a display in such remarkably poor taste, a sad attempt to look like the information center at Yosemite.
But let’s return to Bierstadt, the most interesting part of the exhibition. His paintings, from Yale’s modest collection, are beautiful, majestic, bathed in a golden haze, as the almost otherworldly “Glacier Point Trail” (1873) shows. This is his signature work, and a former curator at Yale Art Galleries explains what it is meant to represent:
In the 19th century, when Americans, especially Easterners living in cities, looked at a painting by Bierstadt, it gave them the vicarious pleasure of communing with nature, of escaping to someplace where the landscape appeared to be untouched by civilization. That is still, today, our mythic image of the American wilderness — the American frontier — as forever awaiting settlement, forever pristine, forever open to all our hopes and dreams of communion with nature and of a vision for what this nation is and could be.
This is meant not as curatorial text or a press release, but, more poignantly, as a resource for schoolteachers. It makes you seriously wonder whether this isn’t actually the root of a bitter American nationalism, a delusion we are just now beginning to act out once again.
Because the golden haze that inspired Bierstadt, the quintessential painter of the American Romantic landscape, wasn’t otherworldly at all — it was deeply tied to the cares and profits of this world. The painter wanted the viewer to see actual gold, without metaphor: the Gold Rush. (And how could one forget the history of displacement and exploitation that came with it?) Yet, as curator Robin Jaffee Frank adds:
There is this verdant valley. And you imagine yourself being one of those tourists and then your eye goes down into the valley and follows this waterway which leads you into a distance that seems to go on forever, promising that the frontier goes on forever. Bathed in a divine golden haze, this sense that this land has been blessed by God himself. And that idea of America as a chosen place goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan who looked before him and called this place the Golden City on the Hill.
Bierstadt studied in Germany and was acquainted with the Romantic painters, and he understood that what painters meant by the “sublime” (a concept introduced by British philosophers in the 17th century, referring to the Swiss Alps) was a place beyond beauty: otherworldly, magical, unreachable. When his eye for the uncanny merged with the ambitions of American settlers, the result is almost a theology of colonization that ends in salvation.
One can’t simply dismiss the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of the past as errors when they become associated with historical problems — and that’s not what one would expect from an institution as rooted in tradition as Yale. But different readings are possible. Bierstadt’s kind of sublime has now become, in art and literature, almost the standard response to reality in America: to flee from the scene of the crime, to seek refuge and comfort in beauty and nature, to be untroubled by the facts of the world and in almost perfect agreement with classical liberalism (and its more militant branch, neoliberalism), preaching the ugliness of politics from which one must escape. It is this attitude that has partially destroyed public life in the United States. This kind of romanticism helps us understand the radical impetus of abstract painting in the early and mid-20th century as a reaction to a recalcitrant aestheticism (something that wouldn’t be obvious to our contemporaries). But abstraction is now itself in need of critical review, as it has been, by and large, adopted and merged into the aesthetics of high-end luxury.
There is a shocking optimism in this show about its subject matter, as well as a cynical treatment of the past. It is undeniable — as the exhibition accidentally highlights — that there is a correlation between history, politics, and science in that many scientific discoveries in natural history were the result of colonial exploration and exploitation. This doesn’t necessarily lead us to the conclusion that science is bad; it’s actually morally neutral. But it is crucially important to understand the degree to which we inhabit structures of power and time that are much larger than ourselves. We are constantly surrounded by objects and places imbued with the memory of violence, a violence that is cumulative and, for us as mere observers, unquantifiable. Its presence is not only pervasive throughout history but very much alive today, through our systems of political representation, education, health, housing, welfare, etc. Bierstadt’s empty West Coast landscapes are today more than a memory; they stand for a political reality: the right of access to water, land ownership, economic inequality, military surveillance, black sites, border control, and racial segregation. What a pity for an institution like Yale, founded in the Colonial era, to ignore all of this.
Yosemite: Exploring the Incomparable Valley continues at Yale University Art Gallery (1111 Chapel Street, New Haven) through December 31.