This Exhibition Has Ended

April 21, 2018
August 12, 2018
In the wing and Opatrny Galleries, Floor 2L

For American artists, the landscape has long served a purpose of shaping and reflecting political, aesthetic, ecological, and ethical concerns. While the styles and methods for depicting natural environments have varied, the status of the American landscape as a site of national and cultural reflection has remained. But what this means for the nation’s artists and citizens—and how we look at the ways landscape has been depicted—is and has been constantly shifting. 

Shifting Ground positions the period between the middle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a historical reference point for an examination of the American landscape. In both centuries, a series of local, national, and global events were coalescing in the development of an evolving national identity, which in many ways could be said to have been a factor or symbol of America’s shifting relationship with its land and its environment. 

In the mid–nineteenth century, the push westward under the concept of Manifest Destiny was accompanied by a cultural preoccupation with the relationship between man and nature. Hudson River School artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill painted landscapes that were more than an idealized representation of a natural scene: the grandeur and resonance of their depictions derive from the fact that they were not merely rote transcriptions but reflections of a country that was steadily defining itself through unprecedented industrial development and expansion. 

A century later, as postwar America began bearing witness to social protest and societal unease, environmental concerns unearthed and elevated by student groups, authors, scientists, and activists were not only thrust into the national consciousness but subsumed into ongoing and active artistic and theoretical discourses. Within this cultural milieu, the landscape shifted from a symbol of expansion to a site of critique, experimentation, and exploration. 

As sections of this exhibition show, American artists in the 1960s and ’70s used the landscape to raise questions related to aesthetics and representation, citizenship and migration, and growing environmental concern. Throughout American history, different segments of the country’s frontier captured the nation’s imagination and the interest of its artists—be it the Hudson River School, photographers of the twentieth-century’s newly christened National Parks, or interpretations of the cityscapes and open roads of the postwar period. Shifting Ground searches for a common thread between these that has less to do with the particular landscape being represented, and more to do with how it is portrayed, and why. 

This exhibition was curated by undergraduate members of Cornell’s History of Art Majors’ Society, with oversight by Leah Sweet, the Lynch Curatorial Coordinator for Academic Programs, and Brittany Rubin, print room curatorial assistant, at the Johnson Museum. Funding for the exhibition has been provided in part by a generous gift from Betsey and Alan Harris. 

2017–18 History of Art Majors’ Society

Mia Toledo, co-president
Samantha Siegler, co-president
Kathie Jiang, secretary
Troy Sherman, treasurer
Isabel Malina
Rebecca N. Clark
Alex Basler (abroad Spring 2018)
Nina Simpkins, vice president (abroad Spring 2018)