Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873. Oil on canvas. Gift of Archer Milton Huntington, 1909.16
Ahead of Earth Month, Nature, Crisis, Consequence on view March 31 – July 16, 2023
This spring, the New-York Historical Society presents Nature, Crisis, Consequence, a groundbreaking art exhibition that looks at the social and cultural impact of the environmental crisis on different communities across America. On view March 31 – July 9, 2023, the exhibition draws from New-York Historical’s permanent collection, recent acquisitions, and loaned works, which collectively span the history of the United States and presents subjects ranging from the proto-environmentalism of the Hudson River School to the razing of homes and churches to clear land for Central Park, the environmental and human tolls of the transcontinental railroad, and Indigenous artists’ calls to environmental action. Nature, Crisis, Consequence is curated by Dr. Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto, New-York Historical’s senior curator of American art.
“This soul-searching exhibition illustrates the historical contest between humans and nature through art, and focuses on the enduring consequences of centuries of man-made ecological degradations in America,” said Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang, chair of the Board of Trustees at New-York Historical. “We believe that the preservation of nature is an important part of responsible citizenry, which has been New-York Historical’s mission since our founding in 1804. We are proud to be the first American art museum to spotlight modern interpretations of landscapes by renowned Indigenous contemporary artists Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee) with classical masterpieces of the Hudson River School by Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt.”
Nature, Crisis, Consequence explores how art offers ways to reach toward environmental justice. It brings forth the idea that the environmental crisis is not only a scientific problem with natural-world effects but also a human problem with human impacts—of people fleeing extreme weather, for example, consuming contaminated resources, and grappling with anxiety over ecological loss and an uncertain future. The exhibition features New-York Historical’s iconic Course of Empire (1833-36) by Thomas Cole, which has long served as a prescient warning against uncontrolled expansion into the natural world; an arresting seascape by Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935) overlaid by abstract Pequot/Narragansett iconography, which reclaims Indigenous heritages along the New England coast; and a woven ceramic basket by Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock, b. 1980) invoking the mass fish die-offs around Long Island caused by climate change.
Other highlights include works like Great Blue Heron (1821-1824) by John James Audubon, whose lifelike and life-sized portrayal of North American birds spurred early conservation efforts; Albert Bierstadt’s Donner Lake from the Summit (1873), commissioned by the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington to commemorate the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad; and artist Oscar yi Hou’s (b. 1998) portrayal of an Asian cowgirl inspired by the history of Chinese immigrants in the shaping of the American West. A flamboyant feather mask by the late New York Times photojournalist Bill Cunningham (1929-2016) featuring only domestic bird and fowl feathers in accordance with the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act is shown in dialogue with a leather and eagle-feather mask and war bonnet called Resilience by Osceola Red Shirt (Oglala Lakota, b. 1976) and Genevieve Red Shirt (Rosebud Sioux, Chickasaw, Taíno, b. 1978). The Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects more than 1,000 species of migratory birds; this same federal policy also curbs Indigenous cultural practice, as exemplified by the use of hand-painted imitation golden eagle feathers in the making of the war bonnet.
A section of the exhibition also showcases rarely seen early photographs from New-York Historical’s renowned Patricia D. Klingenstein Library which suggest what Seneca Village—the once-thriving Black and immigrant community in Manhattan that was seized through eminent domain and destroyed to create the city’s world-famous Central Park—might have looked like.
“The environmental crisis is also a civil rights crisis,” said curator Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto. “Nature, Crisis, Consequence tells the story of industry and deforestation, but also of the people breathing polluted air and the communities losing the land upon which their cultures depend. I hope it provides visitors with a new way of understanding the climate crisis and the role art can play in leading us toward climate justice.”
On March 30, 2023, as part of the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Distinguished Speakers Series, New-York Historical presents a dialogue with five contemporary Indigenous artists (including one estate) whose works are featured in the exhibition. Renowned painter Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee) is known for her work of American landscapes and their metaphorical, physical, and spiritual significance “not only to Native Americans, but also to all citizenry.” WalkingStick’s works are in the permanent collections of and currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock) is a member of the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island, a community affected by overfishing and other environmental crises. Regarded as one of the leading contemporary ceramic artists, Leonard expresses her advocacy for water rights and cultural sustainability through clay. Her installations were recently featured at and are in the permanent collections of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photographer Sarah Sense (Choctaw and Chitimacha) pioneered the visual practice of woven photography, weaving images of land, water, portraits, and texts in the traditional style of Chitimacha baskets to create two- and three-dimensional works. She previously served as curator and director of the American Indian Community House Gallery. Mixed media artist Ben Pease (Crow and Northern Cheyenne) was born and raised on Crow Reservation in Montana, and is deeply engaged in activism in the Crow community. In 2019, he was invited to take part in the Berlin Wall Project to paint a monumental mural on remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall; in 2020, his five-panel polyptych was featured on the façade of the Chicago Field Museum. Representing the estate of iconic artist Fritz Scholder (Luiseño, 1937-2005), whose frank and controversial paintings of Native Americans made him the most commercially successful Indigenous artist in the U.S., Steven Gonzalez will speak about his longtime work with the artist’s second wife Ramona on preserving Scholder’s legacy. Moderated by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang, this program is presented live and free to the public; advanced registration is required.
Private group tours can be arranged throughout the run of the exhibition. A curator-led gallery tour is scheduled for May 8, 2023. Family friendly story times featuring books about the environment take place during the exhibition’s run. Learn more at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s family calendar.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
Additional support is provided by Ernest Tollerson.
About the New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new wing housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Tumblr.
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