California: The Art of Water

July 13 - November 28, 2016

Wall panel texts


California: The Art of Water



California has one of the largest and most complex water systems in the world, and images have played a central role in its creation. Artists who arrived during the gold rush found an arid region very different from the places they had left in the East. In a territory where fresh water is precious, they portrayed prosperous farms and locales in the wilderness that abounded in rivers and lakes. Later image makers broadened the early vision of California as a land where there is enough water for every use, depicting sparkling swimming pools and oranges ripening on the bough. Such representations went hand in hand with business promotions to attract newcomers to the state.
As images of a well-watered California circulated around the nation, many artists began to reveal the state as a place of droughts and inundations, where the control of water exacts a steep price. They explored the immense and growing array of waterworks that booming cities, irrigated agriculture, and flood control require -- titanic dams and concrete canals that run for hundreds of miles. They also pictured ravaged landscapes that embody the state's chaotic water laws and the disregard for the natural environment that took root during the gold rush. These works bear witness to the fact that California's current water system cannot sustain a growing population. Looking towards a future of escalating conflicts over a critical resource, they challenge us to look at places where people and nature are opponents in a zero-sum game.
Exhibition credit line:
This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center with guest curator Claire Perry. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Loughlin Family Exhibition Fund, the Bill and Jean Lane Fund at the Cantor Arts Center, Mary Anne Nyburg Baker and G. Leonard Baker Jr., the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Clumeck Fund, and the Special Exhibitions Fund.

Bay I section text:

Many eminent artists and photographers of the 19th century depicted pristine water scenery in California's wilderness areas. Transporting heavy loads of paint boxes, easels, cameras, glass negatives, and tripods, they trekked over rugged terrain to portray crystalline lakes and cataracts streaming down steep mountainsides. Their pictures offered evidence not only that California had plenty of water, but also that the refined world of art had declared it ready for nature viewing. Artists in the 20th and 21st centuries continued to make pilgrimages to places that had become icons of California's natural bounty.

Bay II section text

Water has always been a prominent feature in works of art portraying enterprise in California. Paintings and photographs show that water has been harnessed to prospect for gold, build cities, and irrigate farmland. Hints that development can take place without regard for long-term water planning sometimes seep into artistic images, revealing curious undertakings on the edge of the continent -- towns built in areas that flood regularly and crops growing in deserts. California emerges in art as a place where human activity defies the limitations of nature.


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