The investigation of landscape, nature and ecology in contemporary art has its roots, in part, in the legacy of Romanticism and the search for man’s place within the world.
The natural world was seen as a means through which to portray the struggle of the human condition and paintings of extraordinary, often imaginary landscapes exploited a sense of awe-inspiring Nature, as a simultaneously sublime and threatening power. With increasing travel for trade and exploration throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries artists were moved to represent the epic scale of newly discovered destinations. In the United States, a tradition of landscape painting developed that was infused with religious fervour and strengthened national identity. By the turn of the century, the growth in travel for pleasure provoked ways of looking at the landscape as a site for leisure, freedom and independence.
Landscapes were also the backdrop against which political and social experiences could be played out in art. In an increasingly industrial and mechanised society, it provided a vehicle for nostalgic longing for a simpler, rural existence, and became a crucial symbol of patriotism for many artists across war-torn Europe during the Second World War.
The expression of politics and history through the land has been a key aspect of contemporary conceptual practices as artists have continued to grapple with their place within a changing global environment. Since the 1960s this has been coupled with an engagement with ecological preoccupations and the development of political debate around it. Perhaps more than any other artist, Joseph Beuys, a founder of the Green Party in Germany, brought together these concerns in his desire to use art to initiate environmental and social change. The culmination of Beuys’s ideas could be said to be 7000 Oak Trees, a proposal to plant 7000 oak trees which he hoped would provoke the ecological awakening of humankind.
Democratic, universal human experience is found in the work of British artists Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. Although derived from highly personal experiences, fixed in time and place, both Long and Fulton’s work relays a collective sense of the natural world that is open and accessible to all. In a text written in 1980 entitled Five Six Pick Up Sticks, Long wrote:
My art is about working in the wide world, wherever, on the surface of the earth my outdoor sculptures and walking locations are not subject to possession and ownership. I like the fact that roads and mountains are common, public land.
In his exploration of the body in relation to the natural environment, there is a strong reflection back to a Romantic tradition in Long’s practice. This could also be said of Vija Celmins’s extraordinary images of the universe, deserts and seas which raise questions about our sense of isolation when confronted with the vastness and infinity of these natural phenomenon.
Nature and creation have been, for many contemporary artists, metaphors for the process of making art. In the work of Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, amongst others, the cycles of regeneration and decay are explored and frequently manifested through the physical materials they employ. Kiefer incorporates seeds, plants, ash, clay and shellac (a naturally found resin) into his paintings and sculptures that invoke the flux and instability inherent in nature. Arte Povera artists during the late 1960s such as Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz were attracted to simple organic materials for their symbolic significance or for their sensory or tactile qualities. In different ways they sought to align art with nature in order to draw art into the everyday world.
Although many contemporary artists have clearly moved away from conventional representation of landscapes, Alex Katz’s use of paint to depict the world he knows remains fresh and original. Using close-up frames and with an acute sense of composition, Katz conjures up light and shadow, the weightless of leaves and branches, ripples on water and flowers against grass with minimal, spontaneous brushstrokes and a dexterous eye.