PRINT April 1982


THE REPUBLICATION OF John James Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America, makes clear the essential goodness of both the man and his art. I had always assumed that I would like Audubon’s work. Well, now that I’ve really looked, I love the work. It is the magnitude of the effort that strikes me first. The sum of Audubon’s original investigation into the ornithology of North America is awesome: a folio of 435 hand-colored etchings, accompanied by a separate five volume set, The Ornithological Biography, giving detailed observations of each species. What also moves me is his uniquely American vision, one very sympathetic to his transcendentalist contemporaries, Emerson and Thoreau. It is a secular vision, but it is permeated with the divine as witnessed by the immensity of nature in all its complexity.

Audubon’s original Double-Elephant Folio was completed in 1838 by the engraver Robert Havell of London. It presented the etchings in a 29 1/2-by-39 1/2-inch format (a size large enough to accommodate real-scale drawings of the largest birds), with the heaviest of the volumes weighing a formidable 56 pounds. Two hundred editions were completed and, at the time, sold for $1,000 each (an original folio now goes for a half million or more at auction). The new Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio, published by Abbeville Press, includes color reproductions of all 435 original plates, is 15 1/4-by-12 inches (approximately 40% of the original size), weighs 16 pounds, and retails for $150.

The new edition includes a disappointing introduction by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson. It is a brief and surprisingly disparaging account of the artist’s career. Audubon’s own writing, which is extensive, is full of vivid accounts of chasing birds with gun, dog, and nag through the Mississippi River valley, the Florida Everglades, and the pine forests of Maine. In an entertaining way, the Petersons’ introduction could have established the atmosphere in which the drawings were created. Instead, they serve us competitive comments (perhaps because of their own activity in the field) like this: “Judging by his description of bird voices, Audubon had a very poor ear, particularly when describing some of the high pitched warblers, which he flatly stated had no song. Obviously, he had been banging away with his fowling piece so much since his youth that his eardrums were as insensitive as those of some modern rock musicians.” Attempts to repair their remarks with such inane truisms as, “We can if we choose, be critical of these errors, but the wild life artist of today is able to step on the shoulders of those who have gone before,” add nothing. Nor does the Petersons’ extended discussion of other bird artists, with an emphasis on contemporary illustrators.

The quality of the new edition’s color reproduction is adequate, but when compared to original plates in the New York Historical Society’s collection (not, in fairness, the edition that was used for this reissue), clearly inferior. In general, the new edition’s plates are greenish, more strongly colored, want deep black, and lack subtlety of tone. The color is most accurate in those plates that emphasize the primaries, like the magenta-tinted Purple Finch and the yellow-gold Prothonotary Warbler.

The design of the book works hard at being elegant, but the coated bright-white paper, although heavy and good for reproduction, is too cold and glossy for the subject, too modern. A less slick, creamier paper would have been more empathetic. The nubby, dark brown, gold-lettered pages that introduce chapters are as lovely as menus in expensive Italian restaurants. The contemporary design seems almost like an apology for the “old-fashionedness” of the prints. Current convention really should have been sacrificed for esthetic and historical continuity.

The editors have also—wrongly, I think—rearranged the plates into correct phylogenic sequence and perversely deleted Audubon’s scripted captions in favor of typeset blocks giving the currently accepted name, followed in brackets by Audubon’s identification, and the bird’s scientific classification. Each phylogenic sequence of prints is preceded by a commentary in which each plate is reproduced in miniature and accompanied by a brief summary of the habits, environments, and ranges of the birds. This section provides a convenient reference and is a welcome addition to the plates. Removing Audubon’s captions, however, was a gross mistake. Echoing the silhouettes of the birds, the original broad, round script was an integral part of each composition—but no longer. (In the case of the Mourning Dove, an inch of landscape had been removed from the bottom of the image itself.) It would have been sufficient to correct the scientific information in the commentary section. The prints should have been left as they were. In fact, the engravings should have been handled as the artworks they are. Pretending that a book that is difficult enough to move from the coffee table to the couch has potential as a field guide does no one a service.

Like most of us, Audubon was not blessed with instant mastery. Proceeding with the diligence and scrutiny of scientific method, Audubon studied the behavior and environment as well as the look of each bird. The wholeness of these observations is engagingly available in his description of the Common Grackle:

The male as if full of delight at the sight of the havoc which he has already committed on the tender, juicy, unripe corn on which he stands, has swelled his throat, and is calling in exultation to his companions to come and assist him in demolishing it. The female has fed herself, and is about to fly off with a well-loaded bill to her hungry and expectant brood . . . See how the husk is torn from the ear, and how nearly devoured the grains of corn!

In the completed image, unaffected gesture is employed not only to capture the look of the bird, but also to describe its character. Audubon’s gesture—the freedom inherent in the mastery of his line—is employed with such inventive precision that it successfully serves both the worlds of science and art—a fusion that the new book carelessly subverts, in what appears to be a massive misunderstanding of the integrity of Audubon as an artist.

It is interesting to note here that drawing seems to be more useful than photography for field identification of birds. Roger Tory Peterson’s collection of bird drawings, A Field Guide to the Birds, first published in 1934, was a favorite of field ornithologists until the publication of the two photographically illustrated volumes of the Audubon Society Field Guide to the North American Birds, 1977. For a few years, the new photographic manual outsold the Peterson guide, then sales slipped and the Peterson drawings once again became the favorite. The photographs were too specific. They were, in effect, portraits of individual birds. The drawings, which are generalized (even conceptualized) to portray the characteristics of a species, were more helpful.

What is legitimately thrilling about the new Baby Elephant Folio is that it refocuses attention on the irrepressible nature of Audubon’s art, which is not illustrative, but iconic. For Audubon, gesture refines specific information into generic symbols. His picture-making strategy was founded on the conventions of naturalist illustration but invaded new pictorial territory. Gradually, painstakingly, Audubon removed his subjects from an allover landscape of verdant, 18th-century romanticism. What emerged was a representational purity where bird and habitat endlessly combined in intricate, abstracted vignettes which suggest the grace of artifice without sacrificing a microscopic attention to detail. The work was labored over (Audubon did thousands of alternative studies, burning most each year on his birthday), but the result of the labor was a freshness which, to this day, remains unequaled. The miracle of Audubon was that, in his maturation as both a naturalist and an observer of symbiotic relationships between a subject and its context, he also triumphed as an artist. His strongly silhouetted birds with their aerodynamic shapes are metaphors for flight—images of expedience and liberation. It is ultimately their association with the boundlessness of spirit that fascinates us today and accounts for much of Audubon’s enduring public appeal.

Studying Audubon’s work, I was overwhelmed by the unity of his vision and his sensitivity to subject matter, and above all by the integration of his life and art. Audubon gave me what I’ve been missing in the art of the moment. Today, patience, as exemplified by Audubon, is as scarce as the passenger pigeon. Gesture is being mightily abused. Much of the domestic and recently imported “neo-Expressionism” relies heavily on its look of “freedom,” which is really little more than a pose. This packaged “wildness” is typified by recent conversion, hysterical color, and obvious, quick brush work. Bolstered by a superficial sense of history, this designer-expressionism suffers from a lack of statement. It is painting puffed up like a rooster whose dominion over the barnyard has been challenged. Unlike the work of the committed, also named “neo-Expressionists,” this is an empty expression. In contrast, some of these others have plenty to say. I have in mind one particular artist whose work emphasizes massiveness, materiality, and the spectacle; it is intended to overwhelm physically and psychically. Antlers, shattered crockery, black velvet, and steel frames are used as more than just elements for composition. They are signifiers of an unmediated aggressiveness. The stunning success of this work suggests more than a casual alignment with the current bullish political climate. Where Audubon’s drawings express a modesty of spirit and concern for the viewer coming from knowledge, accomplishment, and self-confidence, these recent paintings are the expression of a threatened self, which overcompensates with a statement of force, time and time again.

Audubon arrived in America at its moment of boundless promise. His inquisitiveness paralleled the simultaneous exploration and settlement of the continent itself. For better or worse it was, for white men and women, a period of growth and great hope. Recently, our expansiveness has been checked. Imminent scarcity of resources has brought a sense of finiteness to our world. New Deals and Great Societies have been abandoned. Frightened, we take solace in the idea that we know it all and imagine that the course of history is inevitable.

Our investigative sense is failing. Yet another pseudo-genre is now under way which has been referred to as “Inexpressionism.” You’ve seen it: quick-study nudes drawn on Modern grounds, borrowed interest in famous artworks and advertising, which, if personalized, are slightly altered, and tabloid images of war, murder, and sexual abuse—all knocked off or copied with a dispassionate matter-of-factness. Critics who support the work say that this superficiality is an integral part of the statement. Often, the work claims to be a reflection of our culture as it stands and, in that context, aspires to social critique. I don’t think this is true. At best the work accurately mirrors the current cultural malaise as typified by a lack of inquiry and challenge. Inexpressionism purposely avoids overt commentary. Its strategy relies too heavily on a Catch-22 use of irony, wherein the artist is not held accountable for the mordancy of his or her vision. Permeating fashion, architecture, advertising, and television as well as art, irony at its level of cultural saturation has become ineffective. Its slipperiness is cause for despair. Maybe the solution is for artists to simply say what they mean; the results might be embarrassingly effective.

Negative and violent subjects used uncritically are only a cheap thrill; it’s scary that the worst still captures the attention of our basically saturated senses. Of course, there should be no limitations as to what the artist investigates, but as we reinvestigate the past, I hope that we’ll rediscover the tradition of Audubon in which a secular vision can also accommodate the divine.

Mike Glier is an artist who lives in New York, and is a member of Collaborative Projects Inc.