YOSEMITE: ART OF AN AMERICAN ICON

“I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite,” wrote photographer Ansel Adams in his 1985 autobiography.

Although such insight is probably extraordinary, no one who has hiked Yosemite’s trails or simply gazed on its vistas can deny its ability to leave a lifelong impression. How artists have interpreted that impression is the subject of the two-part exhibition “Yosemite: Art of An American Icon” at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

Part I: 1855-1969

The first part of the exhibition is divided into three sections: 1855-1890: Nature’s Cathedral; 1890-1916: The People’s Playground; and 1917-1969: An Icon Comes of Age. It will be on view through January 21, 2007 in the museum’s George Montgomery Gallery. Here are the initial images ever made of Yosemite, neatly juxtaposed with the utilitarian baskets made by the Miwok peoples who inhabited the area at the time of its “discovery.”

It was the artists – writers, painters and early photographers – who first spread the news of Yosemite’s grandeur. By 1864, President Abraham Lincoln had signed a bill granting Yosemite to the state of California, its status protected in perpetuity. This exhibition showcases more than 140 paintings, photographs and baskets, many of them instrumental in convincing Americans of the treasure hidden in the Sierra Nevada range. The famous artists whose works are shown include Albert Bierstadt, Maurice Braun, Colin Campbell Cooper (who died in Santa Barbara in 1937), William Keith, Eadweard Muybridge and Carlton Watkins.

Essayist William Deverell writes in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, “That Yosemite was the nation’s first wilderness preserve – indeed, the first environmental set-aside anywhere in the world is remarkable, for at that time it was still relatively unknown on a national scale.”

That was quickly to change, however. When the American frontier was declared officially closed by the 1890 census, Yosemite changed from a symbol of manifest destiny to a tourist destination, especially after it was declared a national park in 1890. It was concern for Yosemite in particular that inspired John Muir to found the Sierra Club in 1892.

Muir dedicated the last years of his life to fighting for the Hetch-Hetchy Valley, which was slated for damnation to provide water for San Francisco. Located within the park boundaries, Hetch-Hetchy was a smaller version of Yosemite Valley. Muir’s chief ally was the artist William Keith, but their efforts proved futile and the valley was flooded. Keith’s “Hetch-Hetchy Valley,” painted between 1907 and 1910, shows the landscape before its watery demise.

With the rise of the automobile, the number of Yosemite’s visitors doubled between the years of 1915 to 1919. World War I and the influenza pandemic seem to have had little effect on Americans’ desire for travel. In retrospect, it may have been the closing of the frontier that caused the American public to channel its wanderlust from exploration to tourism. For Yosemite, the shift meant an influx by the masses, and the effect this had on the local landscape and its inhabitants was enormous. Promotional events such as Indian Field Days became a major tourist draw, and the baskets once made by the natives for their personal use were now seen as collectible art objects.

Part II: 1970-Present

The second part of the exhibition, “1970-Present: Revisiting Yosemite,” will be on view through April 22, 2007 in the museum’s adjoining Showcase Gallery. Although numbering fewer pieces than the first section, the works presented by modern and contemporary artists are thought-provoking in their juxtaposition. For example, the skeleton-like trees captured by Richard Misrach in his photograph “Burnt Forest and Half Dome, Yosemite, 1988” stand in stark contrast to the lush woodlands captured in earlier shots by Ansel Adams.

J. Michael Walker makes witty commentary on the treatment of the Indians in his work “The Removal of the Miwok from Yosemite,” a play on George Fiske’s famous photograph of a couple dancing on a rock outcropping hundreds of feet above the valley floor, seemingly oblivious to the tragedy inherent in one false step. In Walker’s image the dancers have kicked over the precipice an “Indian” who is seen making a free-fall in a cigar-store pose.

Now that Yosemite regularly receives more than 3 million visitors a year, it’s amazing that it can still provide a sense of solitude and genuine natural encounters. While hiking on my last visit, a buck with an enormous rack came bounding down the trail and stopped in its tracks, as startled by me as I was by him. We stared at each other for a few seconds before he leaped away, leaving only a strong animal odor in his wake – and all this just hundreds of feet from the nearest parking lot.

While experiencing Yosemite first-hand is preferable to looking at depictions of it, artistic images can provide an engaging stopgap between, or preview to, actual visits. Indeed, writes exhibition curator Amy Scott, “Long before our first visit, most of us have an idea of what Yosemite looks like and what it is about.”

Scott also writes, “Tranquil landscapes of this scenic heaven offered psychological respite to a war-weary public.” She was referring to the images of Yosemite produced around the time of the Civil War, but after the recent election season and our nation’s troubles abroad, the same could be said about us today.

Mark Your Calendar

Sunday, January 21

Last day to see both Part I and

Part II of the exhibition

“Yosemite: Art of An American Icon”

Museum of the American West

Autry National Center 4700 Western Heritage Way

Los Angeles (Griffith Park)

For more information call 323-667-2000, or visit

www.autrynationalcenter.org