“California: The Art of Water”

at Cantor Arts Center

“Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields,” Dorthea Lange, Gelatin Silver Print
Photo: courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

News about corporate attempts to privatize water amid California’s ongoing drought make this exhibition timely and important. Organized by the Cantor Arts Center with independent curator Claire Perry, the show features 50-plus works depicting the landscape of the Golden State during the past two centuries through the lens of water acquisition, from its “natural” state, pre- Conquest (with Indian-created oak meadows providing a diet staple, acorns) to today’s aqueducts and canals crisscrossing the state, serving the thirsty millions and their lawns. Among them are some classic paintings of the Hudson River School, as well as both historic and contemporary photographs, documenting the creation of the California mythology in all its variations.

The California landscapes made by these artists reflect both America’s spiritual and material aspirations (which come together in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny). The divine, majestic panoramas of Romantic painting are represented here by Albert Bierstadt’s 1872 oil, Sacramento River Valley, a mythic classical landscape; and by William Marple’s 1869 oil, Mount Tamalpais from Napa Slough, a golden, Turneresque vision of water and mountain (both triangular forms) flanked by wedges of grasslands, with a steamboat in the distance (echoing Turner’s black towboat in The Fighting Témeraire). Less dreamy are depictions of the West as bounteous virgin territory ripe for development. Mammoth-scale albumen photographs by Carleton Watkins (The Lower Yosemite Fall, 481 Feet I, 1861) and Eadweard Muybridge (Pi-Wi-Ack (Shower of Stars), Vernal Fall, 400 Feet, Valley of Yosemite, 1872) depict the natural splendor of the West; Muybridge’s 1869 photo, made for mining interests, Malakoff Diggins… is a graceful shot of hydraulic mining’s flumes and sluiceways, and erosion and pollution—the gold-mining equivalent, perhaps, of today’s oil-shale fracking. The state’s massive water system is portrayed in sequential pairings: William Keith’s 1907-10 painting, Hetch Hetchy Valley, and Robert Dawson’s 1992 photo, Pipe Containing Most of San Francisco’s Water Supply, Near Mather; Dawson’s 1989 photo, Owens Valley Water Leaving Owens Valley and Arriving in Los Angeles, and Edward Burtynsky’s dystopian yet spectacular 2009 photo, Owens Lake #1; David Hockney’s 1978 paradisiacal paper-pulp LA swimming pool and Richard Misrach’s 1978 photo, desolate and melancholy, Diving Board, Salton Sea. Stephen Johnson’s serene, elegant 1984 photos, Rice Fields, Sacramento River Near Colusa and California Aqueduct Near Tracy, imply that we can cohabit with nature. R. Crumb once depicted America’s infrastructure development as Mr. Natural’s vision or hallucination. The frontier is closed; it’s time for a new myth.