Beauty & Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration is nine words of vague bluster, which is how Seattle Art Museum's exhibition of 19th-century landscape paintings can come off. It's the first time SAM has organized its own headlining show from this era, and it's a feat of diplomacy and logistics, with 18 donors, mostly anonymous, assembling dozens of paintings and photographs. Only in the last decade has SAM actively bought from this period in American art, hired a curator who specializes in it (Patricia Junker), connected with local donors poised to give, and mounted exhibitions. But all that is of little significance to anyone outside the museum field.
Beauty! Bounty! Exploration! I feel spiritedly marketed-to. (In a perverse twist, SAM's marketing for the show is brilliant—billboards reproduce landscape paintings whole, with slogans like "Come see proper paintings" and "The original Tacoma Dome.") Meanwhile, the title American Art in the Age of Exploration regurgitates the phrasing of another show SAM organized, in 2004, Spain in the Age of Exploration (which sharply focused on the exploits of colonialism).
The problem is the presentation: The paintings and photographs are stranded, hung in isolation. There are about 10 possible exhibitions here, given the random material. How about some pointed juxtapositions? There are funny differences, say, between the shaggy-dog New England salt marsh paintings of Martin Johnson Heade and Thomas Moran's romanticized Grand Canyons—differences that tell American stories that are still playing out. A few references are made in wall texts to the escapist, Edenic view of the West, as a place where "we get no news, and do not care for any for we are perfectly happy with fine scenery, trout, ducks, deer, etc.," as Bierstadt wrote while in the Northwest in 1863—while the Civil War raged. But ideas and images are not made to connect.
I have no earthly idea why the photography is separated from the painting in the show, and what's more, why there is a separate companion exhibition of contemporary artists: Beauty & Bounty would be indisputably richer if Whiting Tennis and Albert Bierstadt mixed. Junker's logic is clearest in one stellar moment of gallery theater, when a giant green velvet curtain is pulled back on a central room to reveal the centerpiece of the exhibition, Bierstadt's 1870 Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, which SAM acquired in 2000.
The painting is a guilty pleasure, stretching almost seven feet across with lime-colored crashing waves and blue-black burbling clouds. Thanks to Junker's sleuthing, the exhibition reveals that Bierstadt's depiction of Native American baskets and canoes in the painting's foreground were precisely based on local artifacts. Junker flags a fascinating tension between Bierstadt's fidelity to the tiniest props even as he took wild liberties with the landscape itself. But to what end? It feels like Junker is back in Bierstadt's time, defending him from his critics.
After three trips to Beauty & Bounty, I began to sleuth its highlights for myself. I gasped at discovering that Sanford Gifford's glowing painting of Mount Rainier ("The original Tacoma Dome") is crawling with his original pencil sketch marks—something about that seems so American. Also American: rampant visual democracy. The Bierstadts alone range from terrific to so-bad-they're-good-again.
Preservationism began to sprout during this time, and here is another lost opportunity to examine competing visions. Darius Kinsey's eye-popping photography of local logging camps includes a butch Venus: a man reclining suggestively in the open cut of a 51-foot-circumference fir tree, two other men flanking the tree on their chopping plank. The mammoth plate prints of Carleton Watkins are more high-minded. They're monuments of American art, really, their sparkling details unbelievable still; they inspired Bierstadt, and others, to go west. Somebody had to prove it really looks like this.