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California: The Art of Water

July 13 - November 28, 2016


From July 13 to November 28, 2016, the Cantor Arts Center will present California: The Art of Water, a major new exhibition devoted to artistic portrayals of California's most precious resource. Featuring more than 50 works made by eminent artists and photographers including Albert Bierstadt, David Hockney, William Keith, Richard Misrach and Carleton Watkins, California: The Art of Water explores objects made over the last two centuries that helped to shape ideas about water in California. It includes pictures of pristine waterways in the wilderness and depictions of the immense and growing system of waterworks that the state's towns, cities and agriculture required-titanic dams and aqueducts that ran for hundreds of miles. The exhibition links visions of natural beauty and progress with depictions of places where patterns of water use created devastation. (right: Thomas Hill, U.S.A., b. England, 1829-1908, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley, 1892, Oil on canvas. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Mrs. Leon Bocqueraz, L.45.6.2015)

California has one of the largest and most complex water systems in the world and images have played a central role in its creation. The erratic distribution of water -- abundant in the north, scarce in the south -- challenged those who saw, bought and produced works of art. Artists and photographers who portrayed California in the second half of the 19th century found a state that was very different from the places they had left in the east. In a landscape where fresh water was precious, they created depictions of well-watered farms and communities, and locales in the Sierra that abounded with rivers, lakes and streams. Their works supported the development plans of the Southern Pacific Railroad and other companies that depended on attracting new visitors and settlers to the state.

In the early 1870s, the celebrated New York artist Albert Bierstadt traveled to California to create paintings that would introduce the state's scenic beauties to audiences in the east. Many of the artist's portrayals of California include scenic water features. His Sacramento River Valley shows a wooded valley bisected by the Sacramento River, the kind of untouched wilderness landscape that appealed to America's art establishment. In fact, the forest in the painting was one of many habitats in California that had been shaped over centuries by Native Americans. Long before Bierstadt's arrival, they created parklike oak woodlands to ensure a supply of acorns, their staple food. Before the Gold Rush, Native American communities flourished in California through strategic harvesting, sowing and burning to encourage plants that thrived in areas of irregular rainfall.

From the mid-19th century through the 21st century, water was a prominent feature in works of art, demonstrating that enterprising Californians were developing the region. Images captured water harnessed to prospect for gold, build cities and irrigate farmland. Hints that development was taking place without regard for long-term water planning sometimes seeped into these works, revealing curious undertakings on the edge of the continent -- mining that required water transported in flumes and ditches from miles away, cities built in areas that flooded regularly, and crops growing in deserts. California emerged in these works as a place where human activity defied the limitations of the natural environment.

California: The Art of Water includes a large-scale photograph of Shasta Dam made by Ansel Adams. Adams is best known for his iconic views of the Sierra in California, but this photograph captures a massive human-made structure that is celebrated as a triumph of American engineering. Adams's photograph allows us to see that the mighty dam and the grand mountainscape beyond are equal in scale. The image embodies the pervasive changes wrought by the state's hydraulic works, while eluding the controversies that surrounded the destruction of natural habitats. (left: William Marple, U.S.A., 1827-1910, Mount Tamalpais from Napa Slough, 1869, Oil on canvas. California Historical Society, L.48.1.2015)

Imagemakers in California are deeply implicated in the promotion of the fantasy of a water-rich state. At the same time, their works have also sounded the alarm that we may be engineering our own demise through water systems that cannot support current or future population levels. A photograph by Edward Burtynsky, Owens Lake # 1, captures the desolation of Owens Lake, drained in the early 20th century to fill the pipeline that served the growing city of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Aqueduct project pitted farmers in a bitter battle against those flocking to live in Los Angeles, a subject addressed in the movie Chinatown. Burtynsky's stark photograph of a waterless lake bed compels us to confront the consequences of city-building in California.

In recent decades, increasing numbers of artists and photographers have been willing to reveal California as a place where water resists human control. Their works show a land of droughts, inundations, and ravaged environments that embody the Gold Rush mentality towards water that took root during the 1850s. These images bear witness to the fact that most of the state's historic water practices are no longer sustainable. Looking towards a future of escalating conflicts over a critical resource, California: The Art of Water raises urgent questions about the human relationship with water in the state.

This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center with guest curator Claire Perry. Support is from the Loughlin Family Exhibition Fund, the Bill and Jean Lane Fund at the Cantor Arts Center, Mary Anne Nyburg Baker and G. Leonard Baker, Jr., the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Clumeck Fund, and the Special Exhibitions Fund.


Special exhibition tours

Visitors may meet at the entrance to the Pigott Family Gallery Wednesdays at noon, Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at noon, through November 28, 2016.


Exhibition checklist

To view an illustrated checklist for the exhibition please click here.


Extended object labels

To view extended object labels for the exhibition please click here.


Wall panel texts

To view wall panel texts for the exhibition please click here.


(above: Dorothea Lange, U.S.A., 1895-1965, Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, L.64.3.2015)


(above: Peter Goin, U.S.A., b. 1951, Irrigated grid, new peach orchard; Sutter Buttes in background, Sutter County, 2006, Digital pigment photograph, printed on Hahnemühle watercolor 350 gsm paper. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, L.64.7.2015)


Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

For biographical information - sometimes extensive - on many artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artist

For definitions of checklists, extended object labels and wall panel texts, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.

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