A Wilderness Story

Elysa Lozano

When the artists Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran went out into America’s ‘vast, untamed’ wilderness in the West did they know that their activities would cause it to be tamed?

The areas that the artists sought to go were mostly uninhabited (by American settlers) and were reached only by special expedition. Albert Bierstadt, for example, traveled in the company of a United States government survey expedition to get access to the desired remote regions. He made a series of sketches on this expedition into the wilderness that he then brought home to develop his large-scale landscape paintings.

Asher Durand, a colleague of Bierstadt’s, stated that the role of the artist was to, “scrupulously accept whatever [nature] presents him until he shall, in a degree, have become intimate with her infinity”. This ‘infinity’ is something the artist could find in the undeveloped and seemingly limitless West, which was unknown, unsettled and wild. These artists acted as a conduit for this ephemeral attribute to be conferred to society in the settled, known and inhabited regions of the East.

While the artists may have been using the extraordinary natural features of the wilderness to find the sublime, their paintings were used as ‘evidence’ of the existence of such natural monuments to support a budding conservation movement. Thomas Moran’s paintings were used to testify before and persuade Congress that the exceedingly unique attributes of what would become Yellowstone National Park were worth protecting. What the artist had found in these territories was not then a function of the artist’s unique relationship to the landscape, but of the landscape itself. It followed that to preserve Durand’s ‘infinity’, the most dramatic areas of landscape should be preserved. Incongruously, the ideas built into the West of a limitless and infinite landscape, became pinned to one specific location.

The real location of the romantic landscape was specified and contained. The qualities the landscape embodied of expansive discovery and transcendent greatness, no longer denoted a wild space, but a legally protected land, specified in its usage and intent.

This intended usage dislodged the artist’s role as the sole person able to experience and convey its nature. When President Ulysses Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into existence, the area was to be "set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

But finally in 1964, this designation of wilderness for the public was removed in favor of wilderness for the sake of wilderness, defined in the Wilderness Act as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

As this wilderness was no longer a wilderness for people, but rather a preserved area, designated to be ‘wild’, subsequent artists have relocated their search in relation to these prescriptive rules, and through an inversion of this new definition of wilderness, have used the specifics of regulations to denote a wilderness. For example, if an area that banishes people is a wilderness, other areas of wild natural growth that prohibit people could be seen as a wilderness as well.

Bas Jan Ader sought such a wilderness in a photographic series for his project In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles), 1973. In this work Bas Jan Ader turns the legal designation to his advantage. In one image in particular the artist seems to be walking down the side of a highway, an area from which pedestrians are explicitly prohibited. This space is uninhabited, literally and metaphorically, and not designated for that specific use. Although in sight of the city, he works against that designation to create a temporary wilderness for himself where other pedestrians have not been. By providing evidence of having walked in this location, the artist indicates to the audience that he has been to this wilderness.

While the Hudson River School artists may be said to have found or located what could be called ‘the miraculous’, Bas Jan Ader makes the search for it the subject of the work. If as soon as it is located and designated in a specific location, those qualities risk disappearance through legal recognition, he suggests that the miraculous may only be found in the search. He repeats the temporary visit of the Hudson River School artists to the wilderness, but rather than confirming the sublime, the limitless and the infinite, to a specific plot of land, he suggests in this first part of the work at least, that the miraculous can only occur through endless roaming – temporary forays into multiple wildernesses.