PRINT January 1977

Trouble in Paradise

THE VICTORY BANQUET IS THE model patriotic celebration. Here history’s winners pay tribute to themselves. The Bicentennial promised to be such an occasion—a year of national self-congratulation. As it turned out, Vietnam, Watergate and an unrelenting economic crisis dampened the festival mood. Yet if the Bicentennial was haunted by the ghosts of the present, it discreetly avoided them by shifting attention to the nation’s past. Bicentennial celebrations featured reenactments of Revolutionary War battles, Tall Ships, etc. Like the movie epics which in some ways they resembled, these historical re-creations offered a respite from the troubles of today: in effect, images of the first president, in powdered wig and knee-breeches, dispelling painful memories of the 37th. Storybook history was thus the Bicentennial opiate. Not without reason, the victory banquet originally planned often looked more like a costume ball.

Few Bicentennial exhibitions went far beyond a rather standardized format of 18th- and 19th-century art and furniture. A historical-society listlessness often hung over the proceedings. Almost no new ideas animated the familiar examples of American art dutifully put on display in New York, Boston, Washington, and London (where the Victoria and Albert mounted Yale’s predictable “American Art: 1750–1800”). Although a small number of exhibitions looked at America and American art from unusual angles (perhaps the most interesting were “The European Vision of America” and “Folk Art USA”), there was little truth in the frequent assertion that the Bicentennial afforded what one curator described as “the welcome opportunity to examine the true nature of the American achievement and to make some judgments about its overall contribution to art history.”1 If anything, the Bicentennial illustrated the reverse: that nationalist sentiment tends to diminish rather than augment critical thought.

This was essentially the case with an unusually ambitious Bicentennial exhibition entitled “The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800–1950,” held last fall at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition, directed by Kynaston McShine, presented a huge and in many ways bewildering assortment of works: romantic land- and seascapes, early modernist abstractions, American scene painting, Abstract-Expressionist works, etc. Such a mixture of disparate styles and subjects naturally raised a number of questions: what could have prompted an exhibition that began with Abstract Expressionism and worked its way backward to the Hudson River School? Why the sudden infatuation with romantic art Hudson River style (over one-third the works)? Indeed, how did it happen that Frederic Church’s hyper-romantic Niagara Falls—reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue2—ended up symbolizing a show at the Modern?

Curator McShine evidently subscribed to the conventional notion of the Bicentennial as an occasion requiring a nostalgic evocation of America’s past. The Modern, however, could not simply mount an exhibition of older American art. Perhaps nothing would have seemed more incongruous than Victorian-era paintings in ornate frames lining MoMA’s antiseptic galleries. This incongruity has to do not only with the impersonality of MoMA’s corporate-style architecture, but also with the hardboiled modernist orthodoxy the museum has promoted over the years—an orthodoxy initially premised upon a rejection of old-fashioned, i.e. 19th-century artistic values, particularly anything suggestive of romantic sentimentality. Pre-modern art (as it were), on the rare occasion it appears at the museum, generally is presented in support of one or another tenet of MoMA’s modernist doctrines: hence the exhibitions held in the 1930s that treated folk art as an adjunct of modern primitivism; or the 1966 Turner exhibition where Lawrence Gowing presented Turner as a not-too-distant precursor of Abstract Expressionism. For the MOMA, given its predilections, there could have been no more desirable Bicentennial exhibition than one linking older American art with Abstract Expressionism.

At first sight this would appear to be an impossible feat: the coordination of the history of earlier American painting, seen through the roseate lens of Bicentennial nostalgia, with MoMA’s doctrine of the centrality of Abstract Expressionism in the history of modern art. Yet “The Natural Paradise” is not the first time such a connection has been attempted. Beginning in the late 1950s the success of Abstract Expressionism prompted a number of searches for American roots. Perhaps the most influential was a brief essay, “Paint in America” by Lawrence Gowing (again alert to possible connections between Abstract Expressionism and art history).3 Gowing argued that American painting from Copley to Pollock embodies uniquely American qualities—qualities resulting from the pervasive influence of American landscape and American-style building and typography. “The essential base of art [he wrote] is in the place before there is an artist.” Gowing thus stressed the impact of visual environment; but he also entertained such other possible sources of influence as “the style of society” and “a communal ideal in which independent and ungoverned enterprise are inseparable.”

Gowing’s argument—schematic, allusive, slightly tongue-in-cheek—might have suggested the need to expand critical and historical categories. Instead it was read all too literally by a number of critics inspired by Abstract Expressionism and interested in establishing the “Americanness” of American art. The range of Gowing’s concerns was ignored. Rather “Americanness” was often premised upon a direct equation between landscape and art. (Thus one writer in a prefatory note to a history of American art urged as a qualification the familiarity with American landscape he had acquired on camping trips.) This environmental theory of American art history, in which landscape alone served as prima causa for style, virtually severed art from history, thereby eliminating from consideration such matters as the influence of society, culture, etc. The theory’s narrowness augurs its eventual rejection by most scholars. Yet, in a number of ways, the concept of “Americanness” lives on, not least in “The Natural Paradise.”

The exhibition took as its fundamental art historical premise what its organizers construed as the underlying formal and thematic continuities of American romantic painting from the Hudson River School of the first half of the 19th century to the New York School of the 1950s. Justification for this view of American art history was furnished by Robert Rosenblum, whose catalogue essay, “The Primal American Scene,” spells out the exhibition’s raisons d’être.4 Since the early 1960s Rosenblum has argued that Abstract Expressionism is rooted not only in School of Paris modernism (where art historical orthodoxy has generally placed its origins), but also in a romantic tradition of sublime and mystical feeling that can be traced to the paintings of such early romantics as Turner and Friedrich. This northern romantic tradition, Rosenblum believes, encompassed not only Turner’s England and Friedrich’s Germany but also the America of Cole, Church, Bierstadt and Ryder. Whatever its merits (and these I’ll consider momentarily), Rosenblum’s interpretation of romantic tradition with its large implications for the history of American art precisely suited MoMA’s Bicentennial needs.

There is, to be sure, more than a grain of truth in Rosenblum’s beliefs. The difficulty in analyzing romantic traditions, however, lies in the fact that “high” romantic art has so consistently embodied strains of imagery and feeling that have, since the late 18th century, pervaded much of Western culture, “high” and otherwise. Rosenblum, of course, is not unaware of these problems. Already in 1961 he observed that the lines between early romantic painting and Abstract Expressionism are “broken and devious,”5 and in “The Primal American Scene” he notes that romantic painting is an “elusive theme.” Moreover, in the most complete exposition of his views on the subject to date, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (published in 1975), he observed how thoroughly “romantic images were disseminated . . . in high art and low art of the 19th and 20th centuries” and provided two examples from modern popular culture.6 Rosenblum here came close to placing “high” romantic art within a broader context. Had he pushed his analysis further, he would have, of necessity, encountered a host of interesting questions about the social and historical meaning of romantic themes and imagery.

Rosenblum’s concerns, however, remain centered on tradition. His catalogue essay, “The Primal American Scene,” is devoted almost exclusively to a discussion of formal and thematic parallels—parallels he believes demonstrate the continuity of American romantic art over a period of more than a century. Such a continuity is, in a general way, not difficult to prove, especially given the cultural ambience of popular as well as “high” romantic art. But the method of adducing parallels, if pushed too far, is inherently one-sided: to demonstrate similarities, it suffices to overlook or minimize differences. Thus, for example, Rosenblum begins his argument with the following about the work of Augustus Vincent Tack (1870–1949):

One would think that anybody who had ever visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.—and that obviously would include most of the professional audience concerned with 20th-century art—would have noticed that Tack’s works from the 1920s to the 1940s offered, in their vision of primeval landscapes and skyscrapes [sic] reduced to near-abstract patterns, the closest imaginable prophecy of Clyfford Still . . .; and that anybody who ventured further to see Tack’s immense theater curtain of 1944 at the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., would not only have swiftly added this heroic accomplishment to any pantheon of “modernist” painting before the Abstract Expressionists, but would again have noticed in the cosmic subject (entitled The Spirit of Creation, or Time and Timelessness) and in the monumental dimensions (so daring for an abstract painting) a firm American foundation for the forms and mystical ambitions of Still’s art.7

This is almost willfully to ignore everything that distinguishes Still from Tack. The arbitrariness and apparent spontaneity of Still’s paintings, the deliberate rawness of form and color bear no comparison with Tack’s genteel, wallpaper universe with its careful jigsaw-puzzle shapes (often outlined beforehand in red) and muted color harmonies. Even the titles of Tack’s paintings—Aspiration, Spirit of Creation, etc.—breathe forth a sort of anemic, fin-de-siècle idealism foreign to Still’s work.8

The differences between Still and Tack result from underlying differences of outlook, culture and social milieu. If the two artists share any sort of common tradition they stand at opposite poles. Yet in “The Primal American Scene,” Rosenblum is so intent upon defining fixed categories of American romantic art his analysis often bypasses obvious distinctions of style, subject and place. Using a method almost entirely dependent upon formal comparison, Rosenblum attempts to establish such qualities as “impalpable luminosity,” “strange, haunting openness,” “uncanny quiet,” “primeval calm,” etc. as fundamentally characteristic of romantic American painting. These qualities open direct art historical routes linking disparate movements and different eras so that, for example, Still’s forbidding canvases “can almost be experienced as abstract translations of Cole’s, Bierstadt’s and Moran’s views of the American wilderness.”

The romantic tradition Rosenblum’s essay portrays is so amorphous and expansive, so all-encompassing in its artistic and historical range that it includes, potentially, every American landscapist and abstract painter. This explains the enormous variety, the art historical cacophony of “The Natural Paradise,” its baffling mélange of movements and styles. Tradition—Rosenblum’s “deities of American landscape that have now reigned for two centuries”—provided a rationale for such anomalies as the direct juxtaposition of Wyeth, Graves and Burchfield, or the pairing of Arthur B. Davies with Maxfield Parrish (in Rosenblum’s words, “at long last included here within the traditional pantheon of early 20th-century masters”). Indeed, into the last exhibition space—a moderate-sized gallery painted raspberry to warm the MoMA chill—McShine crammed 32 works by Church, Whistler, Bierstadt, Sargent, Heade, Duncanson, Moran, Hamilton, Johnson, Remington, Hitchcock, Ryder, Duveneck, Thayer, Dewing, Lie, Cole and Bradford. A more ill-assorted group of 19th-century Americans would be difficult to imagine. McShine apparently finally understood romantic tradition as a license to include almost anything that seemed of interest to him.

Thus, perhaps to compensate for the social consciousness otherwise so conspicuously lacking in “The Natural Paradise,” McShine inserted Moran’s Slaves Escaping through the Swamp and Eastman Johnson’s Ride for Liberty into the overgrown wilderness of the final room. Unaccountably missing, however, from an exhibition devoted to American romanticism was anything more than a passing acknowledgement of Winslow Homer’s presence in the history of American romantic painting. While Church, the exhibition’s hero, was represented by eleven works, Moran by six (his enormous Chasm of the Colorado dominated MoMA’s lobby) and Martin Johnson Heade by seven, Homer was allowed only three relatively small seascapes which were hung at the intersection of two overcrowded walls. This omission appears all the more puzzling when we consider that the artist’s late sea paintings might be seen as more prophetic of Abstract Expressionism than practically anything else in 19th-century American art.9 It was perhaps Homer’s singular conception of sublimity, his utter lack of religious sentiment, and the apparent distance between his art and northern romantic traditions that led to the shifting of his work to the periphery of the exhibition’s concerns.

Yet the central problem of the exhibition lay not so much with the works that were chosen but with the presumption that these works (or any works) can be so readily assembled into a cohesive American tradition. This presumption determined the way the exhibition was organized. As it was presented, “The Natural Paradise” propagandized for the relative uniformity of American romantic concerns. Through the frequent juxtaposition of works from adjacent periods—Abstract Expressionism with early American modernism, early American modernism with late 19th-century romanticism, etc., an exact museological counterpart of the academic method of formal and thematic comparison, the exhibition was calculated to be experienced in the light of an unremitting homogeneity.

This sameness was reinforced by the manner in which the galleries were arranged and the works deployed. The first room, although more than double the size of the last, contained fewer than one-third the number of works. Spacious, brilliantly lit, the paintings set against the expected MoMA background of bone-white wall (signaling contemporaneity), the room functioned as a visual prologue announcing Abstract Expressionism as the culminating moment of American romantic painting. Subsequent rooms were smaller, and the frequent dense packing of works coupled with a narrowing and darkening of space (an attempt was made to key the later rooms to Victorian-era palettes) intensified the art historical argument. By the time the viewer reached the final gallery, with its claustrophobic jumble of paintings, he or she had been virtually conditioned into seeing the multitude of styles and themes as a part of the same American romantic tradition. Church’s bathos-laden chromolithograph, Our Banner in the Sky, located one step before the exit, no doubt was meant to clinch the argument.

“The Natural Paradise” thus suggested that American art is essentially a matter of an all-embracing romantic tradition—a tradition premised upon an ultimately inexplicable relationship between artist and landscape. This reading of American art history drastically narrowed the entire historical framework. There was little in either the exhibition or the catalogue to indicate that the history of American art interconnects with the history of Western European art,10 indeed to such an extent that there is often a rough chronological coincidence of styles and movements—a coincidence that reflects continuous transatlantic influence as well as parallels in the development of Western European and American industrial capitalism (to put the matter very briefly and therefore very mechanistically). Nor was there any indication in the exhibition,save for a very brief acknowledgment in an opening statement by McShine, that American artists could have been born and raised abroad, that they have often studied abroad, or that they have on occasion chosen to settle abroad. Despite concerted efforts at naturalization, “American” artists frequently defy any simple national classification: for example, who is to say how much of Whistler is American, how much French, how much English, how much Russian (Russia supplied his second landscape and first art teacher)? Rosenblum’s argument that Whistler’s Beach at Selsey Bill is another manifestation of “strange, haunting openness” and that it looks as much like Long Island as England appears as a conscious refusal to recognize Whistler’s international background and, by implication, the general international context underlying the history of American art. These omissions, in the catalogue as well as in the exhibition, loaded the argument in favor of “Americanness.” Yet given the historical evidence, one might with equal appropriateness speak of the “Europeanness” of American art.11

“The Natural Paradise” demonstrated—if demonstration is still required—that the idea of “Americanness,” with its chauvinist pretensions, mystical overtones and inherent methodological circularity, is worthless as a tool of serious art historical or critical inquiry. What was perhaps less evident was the role played by “tradition”—why it was necessary to subsume so much of American art under the heading “romantic tradition.”

In art history and criticism, “tradition” often is taken for granted as an organizing category. There are, of course, real traditions to be found in the history of art—continuities of style and theme. But the category “tradition” often functions as tacit validation: being recognized as a part of a tradition amounts to having a pedigree, an admission ticket for “the traditional pantheon.” “Tradition” can thus replace arguments for or against artistic value, let alone historical, moral, and political significance. Yet “tradition” is not simply occasionally abused through use as a certifying mechanism. The frequency of its employment suggests utility of a different sort.

Whatever the rationale (and often “tradition” is treated as if it were its own rationale), the arrangement of works of art in a chronological sequence ipso facto suggests the internal coherence of the sequence. “Tradition” thereby diminishes any sense of the way a work of art is embedded in history—the needs and beliefs the work served at the time it was created. This reduction of awareness of the relationship between art and its original historical context also helps obscure the relationship between art and its public today. Because “tradition” makes it difficult to imagine how art in the past applied to experience, it is also difficult to perceive ways in which art, or rather the experience of art in a museum, applies to life beyond the museum walls.

By abstracting art from history, “tradition” reduces art to raw material for ideological treatment. Concepts like “tradition” facilitate the organization or works of art so that, in effect, they speak to the “problems” at hand. The great advantage of “tradition” for the status quo, the reason for its unfailing popularity, is that it suggests the timelessness, the eternal validity of whatever values and beliefs it happens to encompass. “Tradition” implies the virtual impossibility of historical change while lending the authority of history to current ideological preoccupations. Instead of the ups and downs of experience, the struggles and changes, the sheer ambiguities that make up history, we are confronted with a sort of never-ending present which is, paradoxically, treated as if it were the result of historical inevitability. It is for this reason that in historical surveys like “The Natural Paradise,” history is often experienced as an immobilizing weight.

“The Natural Paradise” afforded a practical demonstration of the way in which “tradition” can be manipulated for ideological ends. As it was presented, the exhibition revolved around an identification of romantic tradition with the sublime. Both the catalogue’s keynote essay and the manner in which the exhibition was selected and arranged suggested that the sublime is essentially a feeling of gaping, helpless awe before the mystery of “primordial” nature. Nature, or rather nature translated into art, serves here as an occasion for enshrining as esthetic experience a sense of personal isolation and insignificance—the lonely terror of the individual overwhelmed by nature’s vast powers.

Church’s Niagara, in which the sublime is mingled with patriotic sentiment, thus provided the exhibition with both a symbol and a climax. The painting was hung alone at the center of the main wall of the penultimate gallery—a gallery that also contained other waterfall paintings and Rainy Season in the Tropics. Directly across from Niagara, hung in a splendor only somewhat less solitary, was Church’s painting of the Ecuadorian volcano Cotopaxi. The room, relatively empty by comparison with the hectic goings-on in the final gallery, implied an equation and a conclusion: an equation between the exhibition’s mid-20th-century beginning and its mid-19th-century end, and the conclusion that the essence of the American romantic tradition is an appreciation of nature’s awesome, indifferent power to obliterate—and, by comparison, the futility of human aspiration.

To be sure, the sublime often involves this sort of alienation of feeling. But to treat what might be called the passive sublime as if it were the totality of sublimity is a mistake. The sublime is not a singular, unvarying attribute or outlook. It encompasses the attitudes and preoccupations of the historical periods in which it occurs. Barbara Novak has written of the varieties of sublimity to be found in mid-19th-century American painting: “the sublime was being absorbed into a religious, moral and often nationalistic conception of nature to contribute to the rhetorical screen under which the aggressive conquest of the country could be accomplished.”12 Similarly, Donald B. Kuspit has detected in the sublime landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, “explicit signs of the aggressive American spirit. These paintings are as much practical as spiritual in orientation, showing a thoroughly material, exploitable nature. . . .”13 What might be said of 19th-century American painting also applies to the painting of the 20th century: that it reflects, directly and indirectly, values specific to the period of its creation. Thus, seen in retrospect, Abstract Expressionism appears very much a product of the 1940s and 1950s—the Truman-Eisenhower years of the Cold War, the Korean War, McCarthyism, etc. The sublime modes the Abstract Expressionists self-consciously practiced, their ambivalent combinations of authoritarian and libertarian belief, of irrational faith and professional skepticism are inconceivable in any other era.14

It might be urged that something like these considerations could have been taken into account in a more carefully worked out exhibition. No doubt “The Natural Paradise” would have been greatly improved had its organizers not been so insistent upon confining themselves to a deeply conservative notion of high art tradition and had expanded the scope of the exhibition to include work in other media, popular and folk art, explanations in the form of printed handouts, placards, etc. But such improvements in future MoMA exhibitions are extremely unlikely. The social history of art is, of necessity, not among the museum’s concerns. Where its concerns lie “The Natural Paradise” perhaps all too clearly revealed. The exhibition provided an extreme and therefore instructive example of the premium the museum places on finding convenient means for evading most of the harsh and unhappy truths of American history and society. In its mystification of American art “The Natural Paradise” was well attuned to the main Bicentennial theme.

Alan Wallach teaches art history at Kean College of New Jersey.


1. Kynaston McShine, “Preface,” in McShine ed. The Natural Paradise, New York, 1976, p. 7.

2. Although it looks like an exhibition catalogue, The Natural Paradise strictly speaking is not, if by a catalogue one means a listing of works in an exhibition. (McShine obliquely acknowledges the fact by describing The Natural Paradise as “this book and the exhibition it accompanies. . . .”) As a record, The Natural Paradise will deceive future readers as it has already betrayed one or two critics. It illustrates without distinction almost 30 paintings not in the exhibition including Allston’s Ship in a Squall and Elijah in the Desert, Cole’s Titan’s Goblet, Doughty’s In Nature’s Wonderland, Durand’s Kindred Spirits, Heade’s Lake George, Inness’ Lackawanna Valley, Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Ryder’s Dead Bird, Trumbull’s Niagara Falls, Vedder’s Memory, Whistler’s Falling Rocket. (The exhibition also included three works by Davies and a painting by Marin, Off York Island of 1922, not reproduced in the book.) As a publishing venture, The Natural Paradise is no doubt intended to long outlast the exhibition that occasioned it. Its ambitions are revealed not only in the addition of so many art historical chestnuts but also in its subtitle, American Painting, 1800–1950.

3. Originally published in The New Statesman (May 24, 1958, pp. 699f.), Gowing’s article is reprinted in John W. McCoubrey ed., American Art, 1700–1960 (Sources and Documents in the History of Art Series), Englewood Cliffs, 1965, pp. 222–226.

4. The Natural Paradise, pp. 13–37. The catalogue also includes an essay by John Wilmerding, a selection of texts on 19th- and 20th-century art with introductions by Barbara Novak and Kynaston McShine respectively, a “Chronicle” of historical and art historical events from 1775 to 1976. and a selected bibliography.

5. Robert Rosenblum. “The Abstract Sublime.” Art News, Feb., 1961, p. 58.

6. Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Friedrich to Rothko, New York, 1975, pp. 130–32.

7. “The Primal American Scene,” pp. 15f.

8. The comparison between Still and Tack may prove somewhat more convincing to readers of the catalogue unfamiliar with the original paintings since the reproductions Rosenblum uses for his demonstration (p. 14) eliminate differences of color and scale. For an account of Tack’s career, see Eleanor Green, “Augustus Vincent Tack,” Artforum, Oct., 1972. pp. 56–63.

9. See Donald B. Kuspit, “19th-Century Landscape: Poetry and Property,” Art in America, Jan.–Feb. 1976, pp. 69–71.

10. In this respect as in others, Barbara Novak’s too brief contribution to the catalogue must be counted an exception since in her selection of texts she provides material on the influence of European models—Claude. Salvator Rosa and the Dutch landscapists of the 17th century on 19th-century American painting.

11. The bias inherent in the terminology itself is obvious when we observe that American Indian art is more essentially “American” and more closely tied to American nature than the other American art which reflects, even in the quasi-scientific rationality of its pictorial language, a thoroughgoing impulse to dominate nature. Yet there has never been a discussion of the “Ameri-canness” of American Indian art.

12. Barbara Novak, “American Landscape: Changing Concepts of the Sublime.” American Art Journal, IV, Spring, 1972, p. 39. Novak has increasingly emphasized in her writings the interrelations between art, nature and 19th-century American society. Thus, in the introductory comment for her selection of texts (Natural Paradise, p. 60) she describes how, before the Civil War, nature functioned as “the popular 'religion’ of the period . . . the unfailing repository of society’s ideals.”

13. Kuspit, p. 64.

14. See Max Kozloff, “American Painting During the Cold War,” Artforum, May, 1973. pp. 43–52. This is probably the first assessment of the connections between Abstract-Expressionist painting and the dominant myths and values of its period.