How Should Art Reckon With Climate Change?


Explicitly environmental art — works that address human-authored threats to local and global ecologies — did not appear until after the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the celebrated exposé of chemical pesticides, which made pollution an urgent national cause. Images of burning rivers, oil spills and animal casualties prompted 20 million Americans — one-tenth of the U.S. population at the time — to stage demonstrations in towns across the country for clean water and air on April 22, 1970. The artist Robert Rauschenberg, who grew up despising the rank smells of the oil refinery in his heavily polluted hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, responded with “Earth Day,” a poster benefiting the American Environmental Foundation, that same year: Black-and-white photographs of pitted landscapes, factories, trash and an endangered gorilla surround a nicotine-brown image of a bald eagle. Nature had ceased to be a pure and timeless muse for artists, instead becoming something vulnerable that humans had abused. In 1974, the photographer Robert Adams published “The New West,” a book depicting human-altered landscapes in Colorado: suburbs, strip malls and land for sale on the outskirts of cities and towns, areas where the natural and the manufactured collide and compromise each other. This period also saw the emergence of land art — vast outdoor projects that interacted with nature — some of which were actively environmentalist in spirit, notably the work of Agnes Denes, whose most iconic works include an entire forest planted in Finland between 1992 and 1996.

More recently, artists have made these fraught borderlands their canvas. Mary Mattingly, who grew up in a Connecticut farming town where the drinking water was polluted, has focused on public works that often involve entire communities. Riled by a century-old ordinance that made it illegal to forage on public land, Mattingly planted a garden on a barge, docking it at sites around New York City, including in the South Bronx. People who lack easy access to grocery stores could come gather as much fresh produce as they wanted. With massive crop failures and famine predicted by climate scientists, the work speaks to the future as much as it does the food access problems dogging the present.

“Limnal Lacrimosa,” Mattingly’s new project, is currently on view in a former brewery in Kalispell, Mont. Melting snow on the roof is channeled inside, where it trickles into lachrymatory vessels — containers that ancient Roman mourners used to catch their tears. The water overflows, spilling onto the floor, before getting pumped back up. The space echoes with drips that keep “some sort of abstract glacial time,” she said: slower when it’s cold, faster when it’s warm. Inspired by the accelerating cycles of melt in nearby Glacier National Park, the piece is an oblique way of engaging with global warming in a state where, Mattingly said, “it doesn’t seem as realistic always to talk about climate change in a way that I might in New York, where it’s pretty accepted.” Still, the work has become a means of establishing common ground. “The political layer comes last,” she said. “Usually, I walk people through it, and then by the end of the conversation, I talk about how fast the cycles of rain and melt are changing. And people completely agree. But if I start with climate change or if I even say ‘climate change’ at all … you can tell people bristle, and they’re not really up for that.”

Mattingly’s is part of a group of works that encourage the kind of behavior essential to combating climate change — collaboration and cooperation between strangers. What the artists behind these works have in common is their incessant self-examination: How are they contributing to the disaster through their art? In 2019, the painter Gary Hume (whose canvases do not depict especially environmental subject matter) asked his studio manager to research the emissions associated with shipping his works from London, where he is partly based, to New York, where he was having a show at Matthew Marks gallery. Danny Chivers, a climate change researcher, found that sea freight would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent compared to air. “There was no downside,” said Hume. Shipping the work by sea was also significantly cheaper. “I was ashamed at myself that it had taken me so long,” he said.