PRINT November 2018



Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄4 × 63 1⁄2".

IN 2006, a year after Ed Ruscha’s series “Course of Empire” debuted at the Fifty-First Venice Biennale, Noam Chomsky called America a failed state. Ruscha tends toward wry jokes over declamation, but his own assessment was similarly damning. In the US pavilion, his series “Blue Collar,”1992, comprising five black-and-white paintings of Los Angeles buildings connected to working-class life (e.g., a trade school), was shown with five new works in color depicting the progress or deterioration of each site. These deadpan before-and-after records of changes in the urban landscape registered the domestic crises of endless imperial war. Together, the ten paintings suggested a kind of social realism stripped of sentiment and reduced to pure indexicality; but, in a twist on the artist’s earlier works rendering photos of architecture as Pop-art paintings, each place here was a fiction. The installation title was taken from Thomas Cole’s “historical landscape” cycle of 1834–36; this allusion adds mythic weight to the pseudo-documentary quality of Ruscha’s series while deflating the overburdened sense of Romantic tragedy at its source. For the first time, in two simultaneous exhibitions at the National Gallery in London that opened this past summer, Ruscha’s and Cole’s reflections were brought together.

Environmental panic has a way of kicking in when settlers start to worry about the fate of their empires.

The present transatlantic nexus of populist ressentiment set the stage for “Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire,” which was, fittingly, copresented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was on view earlier this year. At the National Gallery, Cole’s “Empire”cycle was exhibited with his masterpiece of social criticism, the frustrated pastoral scene The Oxbow, 1836. As curator Tim Barringer writes in the exhibition catalogue, the pairing aimed to “destabiliz[e] a nationalist reading” of Cole’s work and recast him as a “troubled, transnational figure.” Born in Lancashire England in 1801, Cole grew up amid the tumult of the Industrial Revolution, in proximity to Luddite arson, then moved to America as a teenager, returning to Europe in 1829 for a three-year grand tour. The show read Cole’s lifelong travels as a series of encounters with discrete stages of imperialism: expansion in New York City, decline in London, ruin in Rome. The artist iconographically translated each phase into a staggering epic. “Course of Empire” decries the hubris of all civilizations through a transhistorical synthesis of American Indian, Roman, British, and American land- and cityscapes.Put in relation to Cole’s paintings of present-day New England—The Oxbow is a view of Northampton, Massachusetts—the series becomes an allegory of greed and moral lassitude as embodied in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 accelerated westward expansion and the destruction of the American wilderness and, for Cole, marked the beginning of the young nation’s death by its own hand—settler colonialism destroying itself.

While it’s beyond doubt that Cole’s students in the Hudson River School venerated manifest destiny, this exhibition polemically cast the tradition Cole founded—America’s first original contribution to the field of academic painting—as a flouting of his prescient warnings, which, Barringer avers, “challenge American orthodoxies of today as deeply as they did those of 1836.” The Calvinist theses on the philosophy of history Cole articulated in his paintings (emphasizing humanity’s base nature and the cyclicality of secular time) were reenvisioned as a “pioneering study in the Anthropocene” that questions “the entire narrative of colonization and capitalism.”

Ed Ruscha, Blue Collar Tech-Chem, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 48 5⁄8 × 109 3⁄8".

The ten newer paintings, as a contemporary extension of Cole’s cycle, expanded this provocative (if not fully convincing) argument. Here, Ruscha, not Frederic Edwin Church or Henry Kirke Brown, was implicitly proposed as the rightful heir to Cole’s pessimism. There is a good deal of truth in this, but the overstatement risks clouding the irony of Ruscha’s appropriation. Deep as the affinities between the two are, the younger artist claims only gossamer “silver threads” of connection to his precursor. Severed from their original context, the George W. Bush era, the five color paintings come across as vivid, albeit obvious, warnings of ecological catastrophe (the bloodred sunset behind Fat Boy in The Old Tech-Chem Building, 2003, is made all the more brilliant by polluted air, and the restaurant name is itself redolent of nuclear war), or as depictions of demographic change too easily mapped onto our present media class’s narrow, almost nativist concern for blue-collar whites (the erstwhile manufacturing facility in The Old Tool & Die Building, 2004, is a Sino-Korean warehouse outlet; social turbulence is marked by the appearance of tiny swastikas penciled on the wall).

In its drive to convey the urgency of Cole’s prophetic message, the exhibition neglected more interesting relations to the present, offering glimpses of, but leaving latent, the ways in which the forces of social and aesthetic reaction mediate Cole’s ostensible progressivism. That Jacksonian populism also extended the franchise to males of the white middle class signaled, to Cole and his peers, the rise of the rabble and the demise of the aristocratic expert. Barringer’s consequential insight that Cole cites John Constable’s most avowedly monarchist landscapes in his critique of modernization sets up a missed opportunity to probe how environmental panic, from the nineteenth century through to the twenty-first, has a way of kicking in when settlers start to worry about the fate of their empires; how love of the land is intimately bound to the hatred of democracy.

The contemporaneity of Cole’s work runs deeper than the coincidence that Trump has moved Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl’s 1835 portrait of Jackson into the Oval Office and plans to gut the National Park Service. Following Brexit, and mirroring Bush-era doubts about the hegemon’s fitness for national sovereignty, Irish intellectual Fintan O’Toole posed the question, “Is England ready for self-government?” Within the liberal frameworks from which they emerge and in which they have been inscribed, these two exhibitions, most pertinently, appeared less as warning than as mourning, elegies from the high-cultural institutions of empires in decline.

Ciarán Finlayson is a writer based in London