The Eye of the Beholder

Take a leisurely walk in one of your favorite natural settings. Really look at it; pay attention to its effect on you. Is it a natural vista untouched by human traffic that soothes you, or is it a magnificent landscape whose shear mass defines your place in the universe? Do you see the raw skeletal shape of the land or just a hint of its form airily defined by minute, light-filled details? Do you seek solitude or yearn for a human companion to share the setting? Are you grateful there is so much beauty around you or angered there is so little?

Those who are surrounded by nature every day learn to see its subtleties and appreciate its messages. But few are able to communicate these observations in powerful ways to others. Currently there is a chance to see how those who have such a gift view their world. Take time to visit the San Jose Museum of Art’s exhibit, Surroundings, Responses to the American Landscape.

Like many of the rest of us American artists have had a love affair with their surroundings, sometimes placid, sometimes tempestuous. Their views are shaped by their time in history but more importantly by their own inner visions. Sharing those visions can bring new perspectives to familiar scenes.

This exhibit of twentieth century art from the Whitney Museum leads us from the idyllic and allegorical landscapes of the previous century through realistic and modernistic scenes of the first half of this century and on to created landscapes of more recent times. Georgia O’Keefe’s sinuous It Was Blue and Green or her powerful The Mountain contrast with the Octotillo Nocturne of Fred Tomaselli with its shimmering and evocative desert lights. The funereal Untitled #248 of Petah Coyne and the somber message of Roger Brown’s XXX Exxon make statements about a vanishing beauty that is belied by the luminescence of a winter dissolving in sheer white in Sharon Lockhart’s Untitled. The same world, so many views! Views that both separate and unite us.

There is something in these shared views that can provoke a new way of looking at landscapes once familiar. I happened by accident on Christo’s Running Fence in Marin County in 1976. What seemed to me to be a crazy idea and certainly not art—a fence of white canvas that ran randomly over the countryside for miles on end—had an effect on me I could never have anticipated. As it followed the contours of the hills—not by the easiest route—and evaporated in the distance, interrupted only where Highway 101 penetrated it, it led my eyes over a landscape that to me has never been the same. Like a stereoptican slide, adding Christo’s view to my own has provided a new depth to this landscape. I will never again pass through these hills without marking their soft rise and fall in a unique new way.

Try sharing an artist’s vision. Then go back again to your favorite site. Take another look. You may see things a little differently. Shared visions help pinpoint the important, the vital. They help identify those landscapes that inspire the spirit and enrich the soul—the landscapes worth preserving.

Selections from the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art will be on view at the San Jose Museum of Art until June 11, 2000. Admission is free on the first Thursday of the month.

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