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Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas opens at the Americas Society
Essai sur la géographie des plantes: accompagné d’un tableau physique des regions équinoxiales... [Essay on the Geography of Plants, Accompanied by a Physical Table of the Equinoctial Regions] [engraving with watercolor by Louis Bouquet, drawing by Lorenz Schönberger and Pierre Turpin, 1805, after a sketch by Alexander von Humboldt] (Paris: Chez Levrault, Schoell et compagnie, 1805). 149⁄16 x 3111⁄16 in. Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri.

NEW YORK, NY.- Americas Society presents the exhibition Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas, guest curated by Georgia de Havenon and Alicia Lubowski-Jahn, accompanied by a one-day-international symposium on April 30 at Hunter College. The show focuses on the trajectory and legacy of the prolific Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) who traveled from 1799 to 1804 throughout modern-day Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. During his lifetime, the journey would result in significant contributions to the understanding and study of tropical nature.

Unity of Nature presents a selection of outstanding landscapes, rare first-edition publications and maps, scientific instruments, and archival materials, as well as a cabinet by contemporary artist Mark Dion, all assembled together for the first time in this exhibition. The works provide insight into the scientist’s working methods and demonstrate Humboldt’s extensive scholarship and widespread influence on artists from Europe and the United States, as well as men of state and scientists. The title of the exhibition references Humboldt’s self-described aim to “represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.” These unifying forces also dissolved the barriers between the scientific, artistic, and political. Humboldt’s interest in the environment was matched by his investment in the people he encountered, a belief that is reflected in his position as an outspoken abolitionist. Humboldt was lauded during his time by Simón Bolívar as the “true discoverer of South America” and by Thomas Jefferson as the “most important scientist” he had ever met. Correspondences between these influential leaders and Humboldt are included in the exhibition. Despite his deep scientific and cultural influence and renown during his lifetime, Humboldt is not often recognized in the United States for his contributions. Unity of Nature seeks to amend this historical oversight.

Humboldt made detailed sketches while traveling, and he commissioned European artists to develop them into finished artworks. These works were published in Humboldt’s seminal Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique [Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas]. Vues and further illustrated books by Humboldt, such as Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe and Aspects of Nature (both published in English in 1849 and included alongside Vues in Unity of Nature), inspired generations of artist-travelers to embark on their own journeys, during which they meticulously documented landscapes complete with specific plant species.

The exhibition is drawn from public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe, and focuses mainly on artists who directly integrated Humboldt’s process and ideology into their artworks. Unity of Nature features artists who were compelled to follow Humboldt’s South American route, including Americans Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Louis Rémy Mignot (1831-70), Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1835), Norton Bush (1834–94), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), as well as European travelers Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–58), Ferdinand Bellermann (1814–89), Albert Berg (1820–73), and the Victorian woman traveler Adela Breton (1849–1923). Although Humboldt never traveled to the western United States, his impact was spread there through the landscapes and early photographs of American artists Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Carleton E. Watkins (1829–1916).

In the vein of European and American artists inspired by Humboldt, artist Mark Dion will premiere a new work in this exhibition: Humboldt (2013), as his contemporary response to the tradition of scientific drawing and systematic categorization of species. Dion conducted a 2013 residency in Bogotá, Colombia, during which he directly engaged the surrounding environment by collecting local specimens. His initiatives take form as a collection of hand-rendered postcards in collaboration with artists Dana Sherwood, Diego Benavides, Margarita Besosa, Olga Lucía García, Juan Pablo Gaviria, María Paula Moreno, and Eulalia de Valdenebro. These postcards were dispersed through the postal service to exhibition collaborators before reassembly for this exhibition in a large wooden cabinet recalling the earliest form of institutional display, the Wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Curiosities.”

Unity of Nature is accompanied by an extensive illustrated catalogue published in collaboration with Kerber Verlag. Its contents include contributions from exhibition curators Georgia de Havenon and Alicia Lubowski-Jahn, scholars Ingo Schwarz, Katherine E. Manthorne, and Pablo Diener; a preface by Jay A. Levenson, director of the International Program at The Museum of Modern Art; a conversation between Mark Dion, Gabriela Rangel, and Wenzel Bilger, with further information about Dion’s residency at FLORA by curator José Roca. An international symposium organized by Americas Society will be held at Hunter College on April 30, 2014. The exhibition curators will be joined by scholars and curators from Europe, Latin America, and the United States to discuss Humboldt’s historical, social, and artistic influence.

In parallel, the Goethe-Institut New York and the Galerie für Landschaftskunst Hamburg present Free River Zones: An artistic inquiry. The project by six participants from the United States, India, and Germany is inspired by Humboldt’s ideas, visions, and academic practice within an experimental artistic format: field trips on New York's waterways, collaborative art work, discussions, and a series of talks about rivers worldwide will culminate into the declaration of a Free River Zone in New York and an art exhibition, which will be on view from April 29 to May 31 at the Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building (5 East 3rd Street, New York). Based on the historical event of Humboldt's river voyage on the Orinoco and the Río Negro in South America in 1800, the exhibition will present a contemporary take on Humboldt's legacy.

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