Snow is falling in Portland, Oregon. Thick, white fluffy snow– the snow of childhood sense memory. Good sticky snow is a rare occurrence in the Rose City. Rain dominates. Reputation aside, this year has been one of the driest on record. Whole autumn weeks felt more like my native New England than the damp Pacific Northwest. Clear skies and crisp cold air dominated the holiday season. In 1996, my first year in Portland there were ninety days straight of rain. Now drought looms. The snow is in Portland but I am not. I am in Scottsdale, Arizona looking at Facebook posts of winter revelry from our neighborhood while the desert sun hides behind clouds. Between the overcast sky above my body, my heart longing to be in the snowstorm at home and this little smartphone in my hands I am nowhere. Simultaneously three landscapes I have intimately known beckon. I look at my six year old daughter Devlin (sad she is missing the snow) and wonder if nature is disappearing.
When the Arizona sun finally emerges to raise the temperature enough to remove my sweater I am in the Heard Museum looking at small landscape paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. I am having a moment that only comes when looking at art but expecting nothing from it in return. Normally O’Keeffe is an artist whose ubiquity in reproduction drains the painting’s vitality. I’m not a huge fan. This visit began in a perfunctory fashion– something to do with your in-laws to pass the time. My wife Tracy and I were visiting her parents in Scottsdale with the very innocent assumption that we would be getting a few days worth of sunlight before we return to the long gray slog of a Portland Spring. Growing up in Connecticut may have shaped my body and early memories but I came of age in the Southwest. Tracy and I met when I was 22 years old. I had just recently busted out of New England for adventure in Albuquerque. Being in your twenties is not unlike being six in that you are a raw nerve and the world is full of possibility. Place imprints itself powerfully on your psyche when you go through the landscape with your soul opened at full throttle– so with the Rio Grande Valley and me. That vibrational oneness with the vitality of life rang me as I looked at one of O’Keeffe’s small paintings from near her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I am reminded of the many times I experienced that same earth with my own body. Suddenly I am in my twenties again and I remember so much that I’d forgotten– a desire to caress the world before me, to be unencumbered by the weight of bureaucratic blinders. I am reminded that my memories of pace were formed before the internet. Outside of the museum, even though Phoenix is a non- city, the O’Keeffe paintings put a powerful lens before my eyes. I can now see the desert behind the crushing banality of four lane roads and low-slung corporate mini-malls.
Now, I’m not supposed to be speaking like this. I am a professor at an art college and I know as well as you might that to be taken in by a painting (particularly one by such a middle-brow painter) is the height of foolishness. In contemporary art theory it is assumed that painting is a dying proposition and that landscape paintings are full of hidden signifiers about gender, colonialism and class. All true to an extent. Once you’ve cleansed with the bracing sandpapered soap of contemporary art theory it’s hard to enjoy much. We are also told that late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists engaged in landscape painting cannot be taken at face value. From the enlightened perspective of the present where we are lucky to know so much more than our ancestors those painters appear to be unwittingly naïve saps. They had lots of romantic notions about transcendence and the beknighted place of art in the modern world. Bourgeois chumps. I began my artistic life believing those chumps. Before I was a professor I was a romantic sap that read poetry and thought art was transcendent. Then I got straight. But I also forgot to listen to songbirds or stop in the cool of the evening while the wind blew the treetops. I bracketed everything with ironic asides and agitated my direct experiences with theoretical overlay. I have no business swooning over a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Nor paying frequent visits to another painting at The Portland Art Museum called The Ice Cutters.
I frequently take my Theory and Practice class at Pacific Northwest College of Art to the Portland Art Museum to look at art. It sounds strange to say but art students now spend so much time on screens that they have forgotten how to look at physical things. (I should really say that they never learned how to look at art objects). PAM has a middling collection of American art. It’s better to see a small Bierstadt in person than none at all. Students march glassy eyed through the gallery and dutifully look at late nineteenth century landscape paintings. Certainly this era and genre of art is about as boring as it gets. It suggests fusty drawing rooms and dandified bourgeois painters. As an avid practitioner, consumer and lover of contemporary art I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed by my embrace of this conservative tradition.
There is a small genre painting by Julian Alden Weir called The Ice Cutters tucked in the corner of the American art gallery. While I send my students– journals in their hands– to go look at works that pertain to the week’s readings I dash away to visit The Ice Cutters. It is an unassuming and frankly minor genre landscape painting. The titular figures are rendered with thick brush strokes. The foreground dominates the bottom third of the canvas. The ice and snow is a fugue of close-valued whites– creams, bones and slate. This section of the painting just sends me. I can’t get enough of the thick meringues of brushstrokes next to varnished glassy flats. On a purely physical level the creaminess of the thing is satisfying like pudding. The whites against the barely delineated mass of brown trees and the peek of slate blue sky are all consistent with any other impressionist genre painting of the era. There is no revolution at work here. In fact I know nostalgia is part of what tugs at me. The painting exactly mimics the winters I remember from growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Weir worked during the late-nineteenth century in my home state of Connecticut. He probably painted The Ice Cutters around his farm in Windham north of Bridgeport. As a child I spent many of my days poking around The Pond. The Pond was a small muddy body of water fed by a couple of tiny brooks. It stood like a crater between three different neighborhoods. The area must have been part of some development dispute because it cut off what would otherwise have been continuously connected streets. One side was Remington Arms the gun maker. They owned a large tract of wooded land guarded by cyclone fencing. I saw the biggest painter turtle of my life just on the other side of that fence. Otherwise it was where the burnouts smoked dope and lit fires and during the winter we would go ice skating. I remember the scrubby brambles and bare deciduous trees against the slate colored frozen sky. The dark ice that grew brittle where the brook entered and made muffled murmurs as cracks shifted underfoot. The Pond is gone now. It has been paved over and developed with houses and condos. It exists vividly in my dreams and comes back every time I look at The Ice Cutters.
Devlin doesn’t have a Pond. We live next to a terrific public park. There are big oaks throughout the park and our yard is full of birds and other urban wildlife. She doesn’t wander around in nature as unfettered as I remember doing as a child. It is this reason I have begun to suspect that nature is disappearing and Devlin won’t have the same sense of wonder I had. That we were looking at our hometown covered in snow on our smartphones while trying to connect to a desert landscape through the willfully commercial structures of Phoenix only accentuated the feeling of disconnected mediation. Even one day in the snow like that could give her the embodied memory that The Ice Cutters recalled for me. That same Sunday in The New York Times Porter Fox wrote an op-ed piece called “The End of Snow” about the rapidly decreasing snowline of the planet. Fox writes, “I was floored by how much snow had already disappeared from the planet, not to mention how much was predicted to melt in my lifetime.” Despite the sleet and dripping icicles outside my window the sense of regret and loss pulsed like background radiation.
My daughter Devlin has only known a few good snows– the last a few years ago when she was three. Just the week before we left she was wistfully conjuring a snow day in her imagination. For Devlin’s sake alone I wish we were back home. We will make it back in time for some of the snow just before it transforms into freezing rain. Devlin will get a chance at 8:30 on the Sunday morning when we return to sled down the icy hills of Irving Park. She will have missed the previous two days when a wintry scene worthy of a Breughel painting had hundreds of kids sledding in the thick snow. The near miss of a meteorological event irritated the nagging feeling that my daughter doesn’t play outside as much as I did. I’m trying to sort out if this anxiety arises because I am middle aged with a degrading body whose receptors dull my perception. Such distillation of childhood memory however is a tenuous hook on which to hang a hat. Nonetheless I get the sinking feeling that the natural world is disappearing before my eyes.
Forgive my droopy carping on about loss and regret. If I’m so worried about my daughter’s lack of nature why don’t I stop looking at paintings and go hiking? That is a very good point. I am a townie by nature despite my frequent readings of intrepid naturalists. The Pond was a dumpy vernacular water hole accessible through a cut in the fence behind the field of Thomas Hooker School. Hardly a teeming wilderness. But some of my most illuminating moments of connection to the natural world occurred in neighborhoods. Last November on the way home from Concord after visiting my parents we stopped at Walden Pond. We went into a replica of Thoreau’s cabin (which Devlin found creepy and full of ghosts). We walked around the manicured shore of Walden Pond before heading back to Boston to fly home. Whenever I get sulky about my recalcitrant towniness I remember that Thoreau rooted his sense of travel and adventure in local soil. I can give that to her. The vividness of embodied experience is something one must will into being. Or just stop moping around about the end of nature.
Both the painting by Weir and O’Keeffe’s late oeuvre are deeply twined with a specific landscape. Weir was profoundly engaged in the land around his Connecticut farm. The main difference between the two is that Weir really was a painter for the drawing room. He typified the gentleman artist of the late nineteenth century. Frankly I find most of his other paintings dreadfully dull. I just happen to have a relationship with this particular picture. There is something inherently parochial about that era of American Impressionism. In its assertive middle class good taste it leaves little for the viewer to do. Landscape painting can be quite impotent in the face of experience. It tends to be too neat and tidy. Landscape painting particularly from this era is all about the eye as removed from the bodily senses. And yet that little painting provokes me. I think that the painting does something that paintings do quite well. It marshals the inchoate mess that is memory and longing. Art serves to organize experience. Some might say art tames and interferes with experience serving to delude us. I must disagree with that last sentiment. Art can connect a whole disparate series of thoughts, beliefs and emotions instantaneously. The Ice Cutters makes me think of other artists and writers recording the American landscape as the century turned over. Writers like Sherwood Anderson who had childhoods burrowed in a wilder century and watched with hope, resignation and fear as modernism took over town after town. Loss haunts these works. These painters are markers of time– pulses sent from another era when the air was sweeter.
O’Keeffe was a committed modernist. She was of the transcendental wing of modernism that sought release through primitivism. Fellow travelers like Mabel Dodge Luhan and Marsden Hartley were looking for primitive “authenticity”. Liberation through the purity of wild landscape and non-western cultures propelled these thinkers. Like Weir on his Connecticut farm, the Taos group still relied to some measure on validation from New York markets. That being said, O’Keeffe did create a language so iconic that we forget it is one artist’s distilled vision. The landscape I was looking at in the Heard contained the expected O’Keeffe monumental planes of color and shape to delineate hills and buttes. The blue of the sky was dead on. A good painting is an experience. When the image, scale, materials and signifiers align, the thing itself can yield electricity. Memory, desire, experience and longing united that day in the Heard Museum. The painting needed me to complete the circuit.
The limitations of a picture of the landscape are in the looking. Looking can be a meditation. Looking needn’t be passive. Unfortunately, looking often is a passive activity. I’ve looked and now I shall move along. I’ve seen nothing. Landscape painting has its origins in the capitalist middle class. Pictures of well-framed views are as much about owning as any aesthetic experience. Even when a painter tries to shake those market roots in exchange for transcendent ecstasy markets slap it down. That is because paintings may elicit altered states of consciousness but more often than not the stretched and framed canvas wants a wall in a parlor. It calls for provenance and class signifiers.
Sometimes as I am teaching art or making art embroiled in this or that academic debate I pause and feel powerless. Who needs this stuff? The world is dying, my daughter won’t know snow the way I did. Why make art? Then, if I wait a beat before I sink into narcissistic despair I see those thoughts for what they are– self-important hogwash. Georgia O’Keeffe for all intents and purposes lived a life of consciousness guided by internal constellations. She may be seen as an interloper but she became a local. Art does not save lives. That’s not its job. But art illuminates life and gives us a narrative through which to navigate the world. It reminds us that we are human for it is the most human thing we can participate in. It needn’t be only uplifting. Sentimentality is the other side of the coin of base materialism (most landscape painting collapses under the weight of icky sentimentalism). The participation is not the same as domination. When art is called upon to simply be a status object or whittled down to the barest of utility it ceases to be art. The best of it is an experience between viewer object and artist. It doesn’t always make logical sense and it wears many masks. So in the end art teaches me about presence. It teaches me to be present in the world, to be me at 6 and 22 and 45 all at once. Art must court the numinous. I can’t think of any other reason for making or looking at art.
Landscape pictures have traveled hand in hand with the staunchest of environmental conservationists and activists. This is all admirable. O’Keeffe’s paintings make me more aware of the desert environment but if they become illustrations for a cause, no matter how noble it becomes a dead thing. My guts contort as I swing from my love of an impotent art form to belief in its power to the gravity of natural loss outside the museum. So am I saying that art is a lost cause? Not even close. There is still a meditation present in these paintings that call for me to go do the same in the live world. Ultimately those paintings aren’t just records of a lost time but a mantra for this moment right here. A living world needs a living art. Snow and desert sun are corporeal conditions linked through image and memory to human life in this complex world.