At the Edge of the World:
Landscapes by Jack Stuppin

by Donald Kuspit
Professor of Art History and Philosophy,
University of New York at Stoney Brook

Ever since Thomas Cole wrote that "all nature here is new to art," American landscape painters have been pursuing landscape that seems too new and fresh to be mistaken as art. Again and again they have sought out "primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls" - nature unspoiled by eyes eager to turn it into art, nature that is not "hackneyed and worn by the daily pencils of hundreds" but as astonishing as the day God made it. (1) It is a nature conducive to wonder not analysis, a nature that seems to contain our own lost innocence rather than a nature ripe for exploitation.

Jack Stuppin has found such nature right in his California backyard. It is nature that has come a long way from Cole's transcendentalized terrain, which set the model for the Hudson River landscapes and luminist vision of Asher Durand and John Kensett. In Stuppin's compact pictures, the American landscape is no longer a demonstration of Emerson's "spirit in the fact" of nature, but rather of the harsh facts themselves, in all their pristine indifference to human existence. Where spirit once spread over the vast panorama of America's unspoiled nature like a benign morning mist, making every detail of plant and mineral and sky and cloud glow with sublime intensity, in Stuppin's pictures the mist has been burned away by a ruthlessly bright sun, leaving behind the raw facts of nature, uncontaminated by either divine or human presence. And nature itself has shrunk, crowded out by invasive society, invisible yet implicit in Stuppin's pictures. Hence their compactness - their air of hermetic self-containment; they are in effect miniature panoramas of nature in its last isolated strongholds. Stuppin's nature is no longer at the heart of America, the way Cole's New England nature was, but at the edge of America. At the limit of the land, Americans can once again deceive ourselves into believing that nature is as vast and limitless as the ocean Stuppin paints again and again. Stuppin has given us a nature whose harshness and inhospitableness defend it against human predation, and also against mystification, that subtler, more wishful way of consuming nature.(2)

Stuppin's nature does not lend itself to projection - to spiritual fantasies, to the pantheistic illusion of indwelling divinity. It is too hard - too forcefully real - to take comfort in: it lacks the soft, atmospheric light of the Hudson Valley, into which the Luminists read the dregs of romantic nature worship. Moreover, Stuppin's nature, however dynamic its appearance, is more dead than alive. Vegetation is sparse, shortlived, and clings for dear life to sere - sun-seared - hills, as Wheeler Ranch, 1989, Fog, Coastal, Mountains, 1996 and Black Mountain from Cindy's, Marin County, 1994 make clear. In fact, almost nothing is alive in Stuppin's magnificent Farallon Islands paintings of 1995. They are all bleak stone, immense ocean, relentless waves, changing sky, and infinite horizon, as Window Rock, Chocolate Ship, Main Top, Main Top from Lighthouse Hill, and Indian Head make clear. Even Stuppin's luminous paintings of blossoming trees - for example, Almond Trees and Graton Apples, 1997 - are toughminded, as their incisive clarity indicates. For all the lushness of the scene - the dark earth, sometimes streaked with red, the pink and white blossoms, briskly twinkling like stars - it remains understated, even laconic, a brevity of description that gives it an epigrammatic intensity. Stuppin's nature, for all its forthrightness, is not the transcendental paradise of the past, but a very real, down to earth place, too elemental to lend itself to the human wish for leisure time renewal. Stuppin's nature does not tolerate fools.

The problematic that Mark van Proyen finds in Stuppin's Farallon Islands paintings applies to all of Stuppin's works. "The islands," van Proyen writes, "are a federally protected marine sanctuary, inhabited by an astounding biodiversity of sea birds and mammals; a place that is literally teeming with densely packed life. The question, then, is how does one reconcile the culturally transmitted fantasy of the foreboding Farallones with its ecosystemic reality; how do we go about 'seeing' the islands as a place of meaningful psychic habitation?"(3) That is, how did they - and the Northern California terrain - become emotionally meaningful for Stuppin, and what do they tell us about his psyche? At least since Claude Lorraine and Poussin nature has been a kind of screen on which feeling is projected - openly by the romantic landscape painters, and perhaps climactically in the idealizing images of the Luminists. I want to suggest that Stuppin's nature, for all the bright sun that shines on it, is not only far from ideal, nor even ordinarily real, but rather filled with forebodings and signs of fate. The geology in Farallon Islands paintings is a concrete manifestion of it, but so is the seasonal blossoming of fruit and nut trees, for the springtime of life is part of the larger cycle of nature - the repetitive cycle of fate, which ultimately matters more than any of its temporal aspects.

The sea in Stuppin's Surf, Bodega Head, 1996 may be green, as though teeming with life, but the green seems too uncanny to be entirely natural - certainly in comparison with the green of the foreground vegetation - and the waves are as relentlessly repetitive as fate. Indeed, fate shows itself, as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Freud thought, and also the ancients, in and through eternal recurrence, indicating that life is bound by certain limits, which are inescapable - fated. Again and again we see this idea of eternal recurrence in Stuppin's paintings, embodied in either waves or rocks - both, in Highway #1, Summer Fog, Rocks, 1996. For me, it is the seemingly infinite repetition of the buds that counts in Stuppin's blossoming trees of life - Apple Blossoms, Coffee Lane, Sonoma Country, 1995 and Almond Trees, University Farm, 1997 are further superb examples - more than the fact of their blossoming and aliveness. In Stuppin's Digger Bend, Russian River, Sonoma County, 1992 the colorful patterning of the farm plots reflects the pattern of fate. Fate ironically overlooks its own appearance in the form of the majestic, dark mountain in the background. Its bleakness - lack of habitation - signals the death that is at the end of the road of the life that will be nourished by the yield of the farm: the death that brings with it recognition of fate - not salvation in supernatural life. The way the geometrical farm precariously clings to the uneven, unstable terrain - the California coastal area, with its hidden faults, is earthquake prone - is another indication of the subliminal presence of fate.

The California coastal area is one of the last places where one can experience fate in America. Western nature in general seems more fated than the rural New England nature visible in 19th century American landscape paintings. For all its unspoiled look, nature seems rather domestic, as the human encroachments conspicuous in much of it suggest. It is not simply the factuality of Stuppin's pictures that counts, but the starkness with which he renders the facts - the "primitive" character of his rendering, as it has been called by John Fitz Gibbon.(4) Stuppin paints the Farallon Islands for the primordial starkness of their nature, indicative of the indifference and relentlessness of destiny, not simply because they are a unique kind of local color. (I think the stark whiteness of the waves, clouds, and blossoms in his paintings signals the indifference of fate, however ironically, all the more so because of its luminosity. The whiteness - absence of color - caps nature with its own transience, a reminder that fate is superior to it.)

Nature is an avenue into - a direct manifestation of - fate in Stuppin's paintings, rather than an empirical or spiritual end in itself, however precisely it is described and however emotionally resonant its complex play of sun and shadow may be. In short, Stuppin does not worship nature, or the God in nature, as the 19th century American landscape painters did, nor does he anxiously idealize it into a recreative alternative to society. Nor is it an ironical holdout against the impending environmental holocaust, already in process. Rather, Stuppin respects nature's sheer givenness, which for him is not so much a symbol of fate, but fate in unqualified action.

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  • (1) Quoted in Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (New York and Washington: Praeger, 1969), p. 61
  • (2) On a cross country trip in 1992, Stuppin sought out further sites of primordial nature, such as Niagara Falls and the Badlands of the Dakotas, but Northern California remains his preferred site. Significantly, his non-California pictures are even more compact and intimate than those of California, suggesting how harder it is to find authentic, untouched nature elsewhere in America. All one has to do is compare Frederic Edwin Church's painting of Niagara Falls (1857) with Stuppin's to see how much nature has diminished - how much less awesome it has become--in the course of American history.
  • Today there is much less primal nature in the United States than there once was, and what there is has been deliberately preserved as a privileged site - which is the irony of the Farallon Islands. The wonder, awe, sense of spiritual promise materially fulfilled, and sense of being in the presence of something altogether unique and radical, that accompanied the first discovery and experience of the American landscape is no longer possible today. Nonetheless, it is still possible to have a feeling for the primal, as Stuppin's landscape paintings show.
  • (3) Mark van Proyen, "Offshore' at the California Academy of Sciences," Artweek, 28/11 (November 1997):20
  • (4) John Fitz Gibbon, "A Barmecide Feast," Barmecide Feast: Landscapes and Figures by Jack Stuppin (Bolinas: Pegasus Press, 1996; exhibition catalogue), p. 2