A Road Trip and The American Landscape

Posted on December 9, 2017


Thomas Moran. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Wyoming. 1904. Oil on Canvas. (The Honolulu Museum of Art)


As I drew my own line through space, I noticed the road. 3,500 miles of painted highway lines disappeared into my dashboard, and I thought of Robert Penn Warren’s hypnotic opening image in All the King’s Men:

“You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires . . .”

I noticed farmland more than wilderness, and I latched onto farm buildings; their relationships to the land they sat on and their relationships to each other. American farm buildings sit in perfect harmony with their surroundings. Their placement, in aesthetic terms, cannot be improved upon. I wondered if criteria for judging the aesthetic qualities of the landscape have ever been enumerated, the way each generation of critics is obligated to do for painting. I thought about the vista preservation statute in the creation of Adirondack Park in the early 1970s and of the engineer and surveyor who purportedly drove around for a couple of days looking for “scenic” views to preserve. Their aesthetic preferences were eventually codified into law. What had been the basis of their judgements? I considered the British art historian Michael Baxandall, whose Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy I had recently read, and I wished that someone with such knowledge and insight had turned his efforts toward a systematic analysis of the landscape. What if there was a corpus of works analyzing the components of topographical beauty, the way there is on, say, the spatial and geometric qualities of Piero della Francesca?

read the full essay, as originally published on Painter’s Table

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