Local Museum Scene
The Hudson River as Bellwether
By Margot Clark-Junkins
“The ravages of the axe are daily increasing…We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”
- Thomas Cole, 1836
“The harbor and coast waters within a radius of twenty miles of New York are full of refuse of all sorts.”
- New York Times, 1924
“Near Albany in summer, 1970, a study found so little dissolved oxygen that the few fish seen were ‘swimming slowly at the surface, gulping air, and disturbing an oil film which covered the water surface.’”
- NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation
An important exhibition, “Maya Lin: A River Is a Drawing”, has just opened at the Hudson River Museum. Contemporary artist Maya Lin, who often uses art to focus upon the environment, has made the mighty, 315-mile Hudson River the star of the show, with global warming and the ravages of mankind playing the twin protagonists.
For the past decade, Lin has studied and made art about the Yangtze, Colorado, and Thames rivers, and now she has turned her attention to the river closest to her home in New York City. The artist has mapped the Hudson River — the watershed and its tributaries — rendering its unique shape using materials like recycled glass marbles, encaustic wax, aluminum, and stainless-steel pins. One such example, “Silver Hudson,” is made from recycled silver and is a lovely reminder of the reflective quality of waterways.
<2°/4°> and <The Deglaciation of the Laurentide Ice Sheet> are interesting works which, upon closer examination, elicit profound concern about the melting of the polar ice cap and rising seas.
Of the dozen works she has on view, several are site-specific. The largest example dangles over the interior staircase, a woven mesh made from slender aluminum tubes. It unfurls like a fishnet being cast over the side of some giant’s boat; shadows form grid-like patterns on the walls below. It reads like a topographical map, replete with varying depths and river bends.
Working on site, or <in situ>, is something Lin excels at, as evidenced by the huge success of her rolling <Wave Field> at Storm King, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. She designed the latter in 1981, at the age of 21, and it rocketed her to fame. Since then, her interest in and concern for the environment has remained a primary source of artistic inspiration.
Throughout the 19th century, the painters of the Hudson River School felt a similar need to document their beloved river. Working with curator Miwako Tezuka, Lin selected paintings from the museum’s permanent collection in order to create what she calls a pictorial chronology of the river. Luminous views of the Hudson River by greats like Asher Durand (1796-1886), Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900), Thomas Cole (1801-1848), and George Inness (1825-1894) clearly illustrate the gradual insertion of humans in to the landscape, closely followed by industrialization and its subsequent impact on the river and its environs.
In Gifford Beal’s <Storm King> (1914), tiny figures — hikers, perhaps — can be seen taking in the beauty of the 1,340-foot-high bluff while a barge steams past them. Lin has included information below each painting; we learn from the Hudson River Valley Institute that in 1850, over 150 vessels traveled up and down the Hudson River, ferrying up to one million passengers. There were three freight liners transporting coal, ice, lumber, stone, and cement, as well as grain, livestock, dairy products, fruit, and hay.
Lin juxtaposes Beal’s painting with Joellyn Duesberry’s <Cement Factory, Hudson River> (1983-84), which depicts a hideous industrial complex with smoke stacks that is made doubly worse when we notice its reflection marring the serene surface of the river. We learn from River Keeper that “the modern environmental movement was forged in the battle for Storm King Mountain” back in 1962, when Con Edison prepared to build a hydroelectric plant. Congress eventually passed the National Environmental Policy Act which required an environmental impact study for all major projects in need of federal approval.
Data about the Hudson River — from early paintings, ferry maps, tourist brochures, photographs, newspaper articles, artists’ papers, and scientific studies — effectively communicates the topographical, geological and ecological changes to the river that, like global warming, we have a hard time seeing on our own.
Maya Lin believes that a natural balance can be restored, if we pay attention to the role of river as bellwether.
The Hudson River Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 12-5.
Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children 3-18, and $4 for seniors and students. The exhibit runs through January 20.