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YOSEMITE: Art of an American Icon

PART I: 1855-1969

September 22, 2006 - January 21, 2007

PART II: 1970-Present

November 10, 2006 - April 22, 2007


The power of art-to shape the way we see, use, and protect Western lands-is the focus of the exhibition Yosemite: Art of an American Icon and its accompanying publication of the same title. From an ideal of wilderness to the complex and often congested experience of the park today, this exhibition explores Yosemite's changing visual identity and cultural role as a national destination. By giving us a broader look at Yosemite as a complex, multifaceted landscape rich in aesthetic and human diversity, this exhibition aims to reveal this course and more.

The most comprehensive effort of its kind to date, Yosemite: Art of an American Icon will span three centuries and include more than 140 paintings, baskets, and photographs. Arranged in four chronological sections, the exhibition examines the ways in which artists have shaped the park's visual identity over time, the reflexive impact of Yosemite on their efforts, and Yosemite's ongoing relevance as a distinct, contemporary Western landscape now visited by more than three million people each year. In exploring Yosemite's visual legacy beyond that left by an influential few, the exhibition also seeks to establish a more comprehensive and inclusive art history for one of America's premier landscape icons. In this way, we can better understand the role of exceptional scenery within our collective imagination, and the creation and ongoing use of national parks as culturally important destinations.



PART I: 1855 to 1969

1855-1890: Nature's Cathedral. Propelled by a spirit of discovery, America's long search for cultural prowess refocuses on the West. Urged by writers, critics, and intellectuals to become directly involved with nature, artists such as Albert Bierstadt, William Keith, and Thomas Hill, and photographers Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, seek out the spectacular in Yosemite, portraying it as a bastion of pristine wilderness and evidence of America's divine providence. A selection of early baskets, alongside mammoth-plate photographs and grand landscape paintings by Bierstadt, Hill, Keith, and others connect the presence of native people in Yosemite as relevant to its early artistic identity as an exotic and distinctly Western destination.

1890-1916: The People's Playground. As the 1890 census declares the close of the American frontier, Yosemite achieves national park status and makes its official transition from remote locale to a national pastime. Opening with a selection of tourist photos by Isaiah Taber, George Fiske, and others of visitors frolicking on an overhanging rock, this section explores the impact of tourism, from changing ideas regarding conservation to the invention of Indian Field Days and the transformation of basket making. The failed efforts of William Keith and John Muir to save the Hetch-Hetchy valley from becoming a reservoir signals the end of Yosemite as a scenic preserve and its future as an economically beneficent tourist mecca.

1917-1969: An Icon Comes of Age. Thanks to America's newfound love of the auto, Yosemite visitation doubles between 1915 and 1919 as the mood of its patrons shifts from one of exclusivity to development and the needs of the masses. From impressionists such as Maurice Braun and Colin Campbell Cooper to the pictorialists Alvin Langdon Coburn, William Dassonville, and Anne Brigman, Yosemite artists shape a fresh identity for the park as an accessible place where stylish aesthetics coexist with a human presence. Indian Field Days becomes a major event, transforming the baskets of Carrie Bethel and Lucy Telles into a major art form; Ansel Adams creates the iconic photos that soon dominate the public imagination. As Yosemite's audience widens, the relationship between the park and its artists also becomes a more intimate one, as modernists from Edward Weston to Charles Sheeler begin to explore its abstract potential.



PART II: 1970-Present:

1970-Present: Revisiting Yosemite. After a decade of social revolt, Yosemite faces overcrowding, uncertainty, and unrest. Yosemite artists, focused on a landscape long removed from its frontier roots, are now dealing with a place of contradictions where urban development often coexists with gorgeous scenery. Photographers Roger Minick, Ted Orland, Thomas Struth, John Divola, Richard Misrach, and others look past the romantic legacy of Adams to new vistas and contrasts, as do major American artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney, who perceive Yosemite anew as an extension of the modern experience.

Beginning in the 1980s, painting returns with vigor. The presence of diverse approaches from Greg Kondos, Wolf Kahn, Jane Culp, and Tony Foster ends the exhibition on an optimistic note, looking to the future of the park through the eyes of its artists past and present.


From the museum's website:

The name "Yosemite" was first applied in the 1850s by Dr. L.H. Bunnell, who suggested naming the place after its resident native population. Bunnell believed that early derived from the Miwok name for grizzly bear, O-hoo-ma-te. More recently, historians have suggested the word derives instead from "Yehemite" which means "some among them are killers" and was possibly a reference to the historic mistrust between Miwok and Mono Lake Paiute groups.

Early variations on the name include Yo-Sem-i-te and Yo-Ham-i-te, both of which are documented in early art and literature. James Hutchings, the leader of Yosemite's first tourist expedition in 1855 later wrote that

Descending toward the Yo-Semite Valley, we came upon . . . our first view of the singular and romantic valley; and as the scene opened in full view before us, we were almost speechless with wondering admiration.

With Hutching was an artist, Thomas Ayres, whose drawing The Yo-Semite Falls hangs in this exhibition. The name was condensed within the flood of writing and imagery that followed to its present form by 1864, when the Yosemite Grant was established.


About the exhibition catalogue "Yosemite: Art of an American Icon":

This lavishly illustrated volume offers a stunning new view of Yosemite's visual history by presenting two hundred works of art together with provocative essays that explore the rich intersections between art and nature in this incomparable Sierra Nevada wilderness. Integrating the work of Native peoples, it provides the first inclusive view of the artists who helped create an icon of the American wilderness by featuring painting, photography, basketry, and other artworks from the nineteenth century to the present. Yosemite: Art of an American Icon pursues several evocative themes, including the relationship between the environment and aesthetics in Yosemite; the various ways in which artists have shaped how we see and use the park; and the dynamic intersections between art, nature, and commerce that have played out during its history. In addition to offering an updated and comprehensive view of Yosemite's art over the past two centuries, the volume provides a rich and nuanced picture of the complexities and contradictions inherent in its enduring image as both a pristine wilderness and a highly sought-after tourist destination.

With essays by Amy Scott, William Deverell, Kate Nearpass Ogden, Gary F. Kurutz, Brian Bibby, Jennifer A. Watts, and Jonathan Spaulding

Amy Scott is Curator of Visual Arts at the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, California. William Deverell is Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Kate Nearpass Ogden is Associate Professor of Art History at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Gary F. Kurutz is Curator of Special Collections at the California State Library. Brian Bibby is an independent scholar and author. Jennifer A. Watts is Curator of Photography at the Huntington Library. Jonathan Spaulding is Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West.


(above: Richard Misrach, Burnt Forest © Richard Misrach.Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, SF and Pace/Macgill Gallery, NY )


(above: Carrie Bethel, Pomo Basket. Promised gift of Mrs. Gene Autry to The Autry National Center)


(above: Greg Kondos, El Capitan)


(above: Yellowstone in George Montgomery Gallery)


(above: Yellowstone in George Montgomery Gallery)


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