The exhibitions that led me to “Watkins”

My new book — my first book! — Carleton Watkins: Making the West American is out this week. It’s a biography of Carleton Watkins (1829–1916), the most influential American artist of the 19th century, and that century’s greatest photographer too. Watkins is best known for pictures of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias made just as the Civil War was beginning in the summer of 1861, pictures that motivated the Union to conserve Yosemite and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias into what we now call a national park. Over the next three decades, Watkins’s art informed and influenced American painting, science, finance, business, government, agriculture, and more.

→ Check out Watkins on my author website, then order it from Amazon, University of California Press or Indiebound.

Here are some of the exhibitions that helped me figure out how to tell the Watkins story.

The Civil War and American Art, Eleanor Harvey, Smithsonian American Art Museum, opened November, 2012

Leading up to the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2011, I was eager to see how art museums would mark the anniversary. Believe it or not, there had never been a major book on what artists had done during the Civil War or on how their work may have had an impact on Civil War America (ahem), and I figured that anything that historians had been working on in the early 21st-century would be scheduled for 2011. I had to wait another year, but goodness was it worth the wait. Eleanor Harvey’s fine exhibition (and even better book — SAAM shoehorned the exhibition into its awkward, low-ceiling exhibition space) made audacious arguments for how painters and photographers had demonstrated their patriotic support of Union in their work and often in where they exhibited it — and demonstrated that the Confederacy was even more culturally feeble than we’d all thought. The exhibition (and book) proved that artists were making art about Unionism and the war, and much more specifically and urgently than most previous scholarship had found. When I started working on the America-changing work Carleton Watkins made between 1861 and 1866, this show stood as a reminder to consider the war first and everything else second. That helped me to the biggest discoveries in Watkins, including the first new history of the Yosemite Idea written since 1948. Harvey on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. Catalogue: $21 (!!!) from Amazon.

Photography and the American Civil War, Jeff Rosenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened April, 2013

While Harvey’s exhibition opened up an avenue of research and a way of thinking about Watkins’s early work, Jeff Rosenheim’s show on photography and the Civil War scared me. Don’t get me wrong — it was a great, even very great exhibition and, believe it or not, one that had never been done before. By the time I saw the exhibition in the spring of 2013, I was beginning to think of Watkins’s 1861 Yosemite project as a specific address of the war, and that Rosenheim didn’t include any of those pictures concerned me (especially because I knew that Rosenheim was and is a Watkinsian). Naturally I realized that Rosenheim knew (and knows) a heckuva lot more about photography than I do… so maybe I was wrong? The exhibition taught me that if I was going to make new arguments about Watkins and the war that I had more research to do, that I had to do one heckuva lot more than lean on chronology and Watkins’s family history. That ‘reminder’ to go back into the period, to do more research, helped lead to the biggest research breakthroughs of my project. Rosenheim on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. Catalogue: $37 from Amazon.

A Strange Magic: Gustave Moreau’s Salome, Cynthia Burlingham, Hammer Museum, opened September, 2012

No, Moreau doesn’t have anything to do with Carleton Watkins. This exhibition took a single painting in the Hammer’s collection, the weird and fantastic Salome Dancing before Herod (1874–76), and dove deep into how Moreau made it. The small show of about 50 or so objects included several other Moreau paintings of Salome drawings, preparatory sketches, the works. The viewer left feeling like s/he had a pretty darn complete understanding of how the Hammer’s painting had come into existence. It’s the kind of show museums should do a lot more often. (Museums! Call and make me an offer I can’t refuse!) It was also a rich demonstration of how rewarding an intense investigation into a single artwork can be, and how a presenting that investigation to an audience can get over a complicated artwork. In Watkins I went deep on several pictures, including Mount Watkins, Fully Reflected in Mirror Lake (1865–66), Agassiz Column and Yosemite Falls from Union Point (1878–81), and Late George Cling Peaches (1888–89). Catalogue: $22 from the Hammer.

The War Begins: Clyfford Still’s Path to Abstraction, David Anfam, Clyfford Still Museum, opened October, 2014

Too many exhibitions are greatest hits collections, hangings of familiar objects with little-to-no research added, no new anything offered save the opportunity to purchase a $25 exhibition ticket. (Heck, one occasionally major New York museum increasingly seems to specialize in exhibitions of thoroughly understood white guys that other museums have done.) Then occasionally an exhibition comes along that makes slogging through all the re-hash worthwhile, an exhibition that does what exhibitions should do: present the results of new research in a specific and context-enhancing way. David Anfam’s The War Begins presented paintings Clyfford Still made from 1939-1945. During those years Still lived in several places, including in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked in the East Bay shipyards as a steel inspector, and Richmond, Va. The War Begins expanded the story of abstract expressionism’s development to include the Bay Area and Richmond, a clear rejoinder to the way New York tells the abex story (and that too many historians still follow). It taught me how much putting a figure in a place and time and understanding what he was doing and how it might have informed the work could be hugely revealing. Anfam on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. Catalogue: Inconceivably, befuddlingly, mystifyingly, the CSM did no catalogue for the exhibition (and as a result it is a little-known show).

East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography, Diane Waggoner, National Gallery of Art, opened March, 2017

Watkins is not a book about photography; it’s a book about an artist’s impact on America and the West. From the very beginning of his career, Watkins seems to have been far more interested in engaging the art of painters and even poets than he was in riffing on photography. Still, there’s no question that he was the greatest American photographer of the 19th-century (and maybe the greatest, full stop)… or was there? For decades scholars and curators have focused on photography in the 19th-century American West, and have mostly left alone the East. So what happened there? Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my Watkins manuscript, Diane Waggoner’s much-anticipated survey of photography in the East opened at the NGA. With more than a wee case of the nerves, I went and looked. The show was terrific. It was rich, geographically broad, and apparently thorough. I discovered some terrific image-makers of whom I’d previously never heard, including Thomas Easterly, a Missourian who deserves much more attention and study. The exhibition confirmed that Watkins was in a class of his own, and provided context for how his pictures would have been received in the East in the 1860s-90s: as enormous marvels unapproached by anyone working in the East. Waggoner also included paintings in her installation, which I took as a hopeful sign that the false wall that 20th-century historians erected between 19th-century painters and photographers is finally dissolving. Waggoner on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. Catalogue: $26 from Amazon.

Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840–1900, Corey Keller, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, opened October, 2008

This investigation of how modern science and early photography ran into each other, impacted each other and even promoted each other remains one of the smartest, most thought-provoking exhibitions I’ve seen. It tipped me off to be awake to science while working on Watkins, an area previous Watkins scholars had pretty much ignored. Once I found it, Brought to Light provided me with an enormous amount of context for Carleton Watkins’s rich, nearly career-long relationships with the best of America’s first and second generations of professional scientists, men such as Josiah Whitney, Clarence King, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., and Asa Gray, and into how his work was used by geologists, glaciologists, botanists, volcanologists and who knows who else. Catalogue: $55 from Amazon.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957, Helen Molesworth with Ruth Erickson, ICA Boston, opened October, 2015

One of the things Molesworth and Erickson did with this exhibition was build a constellation of artists and teachers and demonstrate — both in the exhibition and their ZOMG catalogue — how circles of communication and influence informed work, motivated work, accidentally became work, became group projects that became work, and so on. This was the approach I had taken to Watkins (albeit less in terms of art but in terms of his whole life), so to see this approach succeed on the walls of the show and in text of the catalogue, was both exciting and a relief. It’s been three years since Leap Before You Look opened, and I’m still seeing the show’s impacts when I see, for example, the Tamara Schenkenberg’s Ruth Asawa catalogue. Molesworth on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. Catalogue: $75 on Amazon.

To learn more about Carleton Watkins: Making the West American — and to buy it — visit!