Until January 6, the Princeton University Art Museum is housing an exhibition called “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment.” More than 120 pieces make up the vast and rather eclectic collection that fills the larger special exhibition space and the Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery. Nine official programs have been planned, including a two-day symposium that took place this past weekend; there have also been numerous semi-official visits planned by professors for their courses and by residential colleges for interested students.

The excitement about the exhibit is due at least partially to its environmental activism. In a university committed to working towards environmental awareness in its classroom, on its campus, and in its dining halls, interest in a high-culture take on a popular theme can only be expected. For those slightly more in the art-history know, the breadth of the exhibit is also a draw. “The museum has done exhibits of this scale, but not of this scope,” Karl Kusserow, one of the curators and the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, explains. He estimates that there will be more than sixty thousand visitors at Princeton showing alone. So far, there have been about 29 thousand, which is 20% more than the number of people who visited during the same September to December stretch last year.

After January 6, “Nature’s Nation” will be displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts for three months and then at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas for five. Between the three locations, Kusserow expects that two hundred and fifty thousand people will see it. “People sense the timeliness of this,” he says. It has garnered critical attention, including forthcoming articles in major magazines and newspapers. The catalog sold out on Amazon before it was officially released. “With this kind of publicity, you get the opportunity to change some minds,” Kusserow says.

There is not a lot of room for guessing what curators Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock want an observer to take away. The first room “invites you to consider American art environmentally, within the broad context of human participation in the natural world.” There are a variety of paintings, a collage, and some furniture, but the main event is two pieces on the South wall: Albert Bierstadt’s “Bridal Veil Falls” (1871) and Valerie Hegarty’s reinterpretation of the painting, “Fallen Bierstadt” (2007).

The juxtaposition between these two works is one of the images used to advertise the exhibit. Standing in front of them, an observer can see why. The former is a realistic painting of the eponymous waterfall in Yosemite: in the grassy foreground stand two deer dwarfed by the jagged, earthy rocks and the mist rising from the falling water. The latter is the same scene, decimated. It is a large frame that has cracked into the third dimension away from the wall, curling as if burnt; the canvas is ripped apart and pieces of the bottom half lie on the floor beneath it.

A museum setting might sterilize the dread of the inevitable ending at which any chronological exhibit explicitly in conversation with environmentalism must arrive. But the accessibility of this juxtaposition right up front makes sure one is clued into that inevitability and made to feel it violently.

Moving through American art history, the exhibit begins with gloriously large landscape paintings from the nineteenth century. The various renderings of scenery implicate the then-prevalent notion of nature’s divine perfection. There is an emphasis in the second room on the classification of species within that purview. Artists are preoccupied with naturalistic rendering and Linnaean classification, highlighting, according to the exhibit, their perceived dominance over their subjects. One notable part of the room is the assortment of John James Audubon prints from his mid-eighteenth ornithological treatise, Birds of America. He illustrated birds he saw in the United States in striking detail and bright colors, bringing them to life on the page.

As visitors make their way through the exhibit, they see that perfect, immutable, God-given world crack and eventually–the slow-motion version of the comparison made in the very first room with the two images of Bridal Veil Falls. “If there’s an overarching message,” Kusserow says, “it’s that the way people think the world works has shifted a lot. They realize the world can change, and people have a role in this change.”

The exhibit makes his point. By the end, visitors find none of that pristine, inalterable nature. Instead, in the final two galleries, they see contemporary art in which the depictions of nature are eclipsed by the trail of destruction people have left behind. With more varied media, including collages, photographs, and a video, contemporary artists focus on striking instances of ecological damage. In contrast with Audubon’s bird galleries, there hangs a Chris Jordan photograph (2012) of a decomposing bird with colorful plastic waste spilling out of its stomach.

We visited the exhibit with Kusserow on a Monday, which is the day the museum is closed to the public. We found him beyond the large oak door of the staff entrance and followed him through a warehouse-like lower floor with very tall ceilings full of art packing supplies. After a short ride in a freight elevator, we entered the museum from the back. On its day off, the space felt like it had exhaled its pristine and slightly breathless call for reverence. As we walked through, we could hear other curators talking in full volume. Someone’s phone rang and kept ringing.

Kusserow led us to the back corner of the exhibition space where we sat across from each other in black leather armchairs. Between us was a low table upon which a variety of relevant books lay, including a copy of the forthcoming catalog. Those were the academic underpinnings of what was literally written on the walls of the museum. Two huge windows and a slanting skylight overhead let in the natural light, grey that day. The clean feeling of the almost-outside felt apt for our indoor conversation about the outdoors. Two large touch-screen surfaces stood on one side of the room and before we started talking, Kusserow ushered us over to them. “I’m very proud of this part,” he said. “We did an analysis of the exhibition itself. We look at it environmentally. How could we have done things more sustainably?”

On one screen, you can see a map of the United States upon which more than seventy thick green lines connect Princeton, New Jersey, to the various museums that lent pieces to the exhibit. These are the real indication of its scope: With well over seventy lenders, the logistics of actually putting the show together were, in Kusserow’s words, “Insane.” He has been working on this for seven years, the majority of his time at the Art Museum, where he has worked since 2005. The satisfaction in the culmination of such extensive work seemed to emanate from him as his tall frame folded comfortably into his chair. The walls around us were the bed he’d painstakingly made himself, and there on that Monday morning, he was perfectly at ease sleeping in it.

He was in black jeans and a black puffy vest. His dark hair just starting to silver, is longish and flipped over, but it stays in place, a reflection of his quiet equanimity and attention to aesthetic. On one wrist glints a bangle that he draws our attention to. “I used to have a leather one that said ‘Stop Global Warming’ — but that was fifteen years ago, before anyone knew what it meant.” Now, a bronze bangle reads “Mitakuye Oyasin,” a phrase from the language of the Native American Lakota people that roughly translates to “all my relations.” It is a phrase, he explains, that reflects the interconnectedness of all living things. Kusserow’s whole perspective seems to be encapsulated on his wrist. “I’m just going with the science,” he wrote to us later. “We’re animals, not gods. Special creatures, to be sure, but as animal ethology is increasingly showing, we’re not so different as to be utterly ‘other.’”

He seemed to believe in this interconnectedness viscerally. “We’re a small part of nature,” he said, indicating the window to his right, through which the trees were bright green and turning yellow. “We don’t have the right to do whatever we want.” Kusserow thinks that historically, the West has interacted with nature in the wrong way.
“It’s based in Genesis,” he explains. “It tells us to subdue nature, which led to this increasing sense that humans can commodify it.” Other cultures, he believes, have better relationships with the world around us, and we should adopt some of their thinking because they are “in a better place to start from.”

Kusserow continued, “Of course we don’t want to generalize so much that we end up essentializing. Still, we can say that generally, other cultures had different orientations. The idea of a self as distinct from the other, or of humans as distinct from nature, is Western.” So even when they change their environments, “They’re not changing it the same way we are. They’re not as destructive.”

Kusserow began to work on engaging moral and ethical problems in his work in Spring 2013, when he curated an exhibit at the Art Museum called “Picturing Power.” He collected portraits of what he calls “rich, white, dead businessmen.” The exhibit served as a critique of a capitalism that, in his words, “flies in the face of egalitarianism.” But, as he indicated with his explanation of his prior wrist-adornments, the environment has always been an interest. For the past fifteen years, he said, he has been concerned with the deteriorating state of the environment around us. “It’s the biggest problem that humanity has ever faced.” With the precedent of “Picturing Power,” it became his cause, and he began preparing to work on Nature’s Nation.

To begin his massive project of curating the exhibit that would be the first of its kind, incorporating non-contemporary art into environmental activism, Kusserow contacted Alan C. Braddock, a professor at the College of William & Mary known for his focus on the interconnectedness between ecology and American art.

Ecocriticism has been a relevant academic theory since the early 1990s. The premise is that human relationship with an environment is discernible through cultural criticism. “Every aesthetic work is an expression of particular environmental conditions and assumptions, even when its creator had no ‘green’ intentions,” the exhibit explains. Analysis along ecocritical lines started in literary theory departments and stayed there, according to Kusserow, for over a decade.

More recently, ecocriticism was taken into the field of visual art. Kusserow credits Braddock for initiating this shift. He published a book in 2009 called A Keener Perception, which was, predictably, one of the books lying on the low table in the back of the exhibit where we spoke to Kusserow. Ecocriticism in general, Braddock writes, can challenge “the entrenched speciesism, or fundamental anthropocentrism, that has long governed this and other humanistic disciplines.” But he maintains that leaving environmentalism to scientists first and, more recently, literary theorists, “amounts to a cynical retreat into intellectual hermeticism — a rarified form of fiddling while Rome, or in this case the entire planet, burns.” Here lies the impulse to activism that made himself and Kusserow natural partners in curation.

By placing early American landscape paintings alongside modern and contemporary depictions of our environment, our perspectives naturally become ecocritical. We can realize the aesthetic shift that took place even before contemporary art bought it to the fore: there has been a large-scale shift from an artistic desire to classify and thereby dominate nature to a determination to exist within nature and even go so far as to examine our own effects on it.

To understand how the diverse collection coheres is to appreciate ecocriticism. Some of the older paintings, especially the portraits, seem at first to lack direct relevance. However, once we know to look into the background of these portraits to see how nature is used in relation to people, we can discern that they are indicative of general cultural attitudes towards nature in that time period. The pieces in the exhibit are strong examples of pieces upon which environmentalist hermeneutic suspicion might be practiced. Certain key artworks in “Nature’s Nation” function as examples through which to practice Braddock’s ecocriticism.

Early in the exhibit, three portraits displayed in chronological order encapsulate a significant shift in perspective on the relationship between humans and nature. The first portrait in this section, painted in 1710, depicts a young girl standing indoors, as curtains open up behind her to show us an orderly outdoor space that could never have existed at that time. The stark visual contrast between the subject and her fictional landscape indicates a desire to civilize nature. The subject in the next work, painted in 1733, attempts to link herself to her background, itself not a realistic depiction, by pointing to something out of frame while still locking her eyes with ours. Here, the subject tries to connect us to nature. However, her feeble attempt to create a relationship between herself and her imaginary environment demonstrates the artist’s acknowledgment of this disconnect. The woman of the third portrait, painted in 1789, almost seamlessly blends into her background. This nature is one that accurately represents an 18th-century American landscape. By the end of the 18th century, there seems to have been a general shift in what was deemed visually pleasing: human in nature, rather than in front of it.

This shift is the beginning of the major change in perspective Kusserow talks about, from a world that humans believe their rule to a world that humans are a part of and can alter. About fifty years after the final portrait on display, Thomas Cole, one of the most prominent American landscape artists, was a next stepping stone on the road to our current environmental awareness. He was very vocal about his concern for the status of the American landscape with the influx of settlers. In his 1847 oil painting “Home in the Woods,” the background is a pristine and distant mountain, with hills in front of it and the edge of a lake. The foreground, though, is a fallen tree, aggressively snapped in half by early settlers. Broken branches jut up violently from it. Between the beautiful background and the darker foreground, Cole paints a happy family clustered around a newly-built cabin.

Cole seems to toy with depicting the beauty of an untouched natural environment with the reality of settlers who damage the previously “untouched” spaces around them to live comfortably. Here, Cole makes us very aware of his concern of the effects settlements had on America’s environment at the time, in addition to the issues that will emerge with the continued settlement on the nation’s land. As Cole laments in his 1836 “Essay on American Scenery,” future generations will continue to force their homes within nature, already “desecrated by what is called improvement.” Cole vividly criticizes the effects of settlement on the environment. His criticism, however, was subtle. His painting, in its finely-detailed, glowing depiction of this scene, conformed with the aesthetics of the Hudson River School landscape artists who are known for their glorification of nature, touched by people or not.

Later in the exhibit, we encounter more modern artists, such as Jackson Pollock, who were producing their art in response to the relationship between humanity and environment. Pollock incorporates pebbles layered with splattered paint on his painting, “Number 4” (1949) as a reaffirmation of his then-radical belief: “I am nature.” Here, Pollock, like Cole, comments on the tumultuous relationship between humanity and nature.

The contemporary art at the end of the exhibit approaches humans in the environment entirely critically. In the last room hangs Edward Burtynsky’s 2010 photograph titled “Oil Spill #10.” At first glance, the image might be an abstract painting of a calm, glassy blue-green surface interrupted by a shockingly violent slash through its center, vertically. And then we notice the little clouds above the water and the haze on the horizon and realize that it is real. The expansive, piercing crack of oil in Burtynsky’s photograph visually parallels the fallen tree in the foreground of the Cole painting, but this is not a metaphor for what people have done to the environment; it is reality. Burtynsky’s photograph, though aesthetically pleasing in color and composition, unapologetically makes clear his criticism on the disastrous effects of industrialization, showing a painful crack in the water of the Gulf of Mexico. This and other images of human sins against the environment are the last that visitors see before they leave.

Ideally, leaving the exhibit with that taste in our mouths would make us see ourselves as a part of nature and capable of destroying it, Kusserow explains. Ideally, that crack through the Gulf of Mexico is a crack, in some metaphorical way, through our own conscience. “We’re an exceptional species in many ways, but if we believe that too much we allow people to treat it as if it’s not our own fabric.”

Is the exhibit curated as a political statement? Kusserow says that he does have a political goal, even if not a prescription. “The exhibit is consciousness-raising, which is inherently political.” But, looking at us almost testily, he adds: “You guys are really on the cusp of everything. A paradigm shift, I hope. We have to get used to a dying world or learn to do things differently.”