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Art: Postmodern N.J.; critters in Allentown

Princeton documents the nontraditional; Allentown corrals wildlife.

Kent Ullberg's bronze "Journey's End," 1992, depicts two sea turtles arriving at their breeding ground. "American Wildlife Art" is a highly family-friendly art exhibition.
Kent Ullberg's bronze "Journey's End," 1992, depicts two sea turtles arriving at their breeding ground. "American Wildlife Art" is a highly family-friendly art exhibition.Read more

Try to think of New Jersey as a bubbling cauldron of artistic creativity, a place where experimental strategies are imagined, then acted out.

Hard to do, isn't it?

Yet the exhibition "New Jersey as Non-Site" proceeds from the premise that a state often ridiculed as an industrial wasteland was, for a shining moment, a center of postmodern enlightenment.

Kelly Baum, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Princeton University Art Museum, argues persuasively that New Jersey's contributions to the postmodern revolution have been overlooked and undervalued.

Unfortunately for anyone who visits the museum, Baum's argument is better made in the catalog than in the galleries.

Because much of the art discussed involved artist interactions with abandoned or derelict landscapes, or performances conducted outdoors, the show is heavy on photographic and filmed documentation, and light on original art.

"Non-Site" focuses on nontraditional genres such as earth art, performance art, and conceptual art that emerged in the late 1950s and proliferated into the 1970s. Examples were often unique events that survive mainly as visual records - secondhand residue of the original experiences.

Archives do not make for stimulating exhibitions, nor does the show lay out Baum's thesis (doctoral, perhaps?) either logically or with the full richness of the history and the personalities behind the display. This may be because the museum's special-exhibition space can't accommodate a topic of such broad scope; even at more than 100 works, the show feels small.

"Non-Site" is a major curatorial effort involving 16 artists, a few of whom, notably Robert Smithson, were even born in New Jersey. All the works originated in the state.

Besides Smithson, famous for his Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake, the participants include a few artists the public is likely to recognize, such as sculptor George Segal, Dennis Oppenheim, Nancy Holt, and Allan Kaprow, who invented "happenings."

Although born in New York, Segal was perhaps the most deeply rooted of the Jerseyans; he lived on a farm in South Brunswick for nearly 50 years, until his death in 2000.

Smithson, a native son, may be the artist best represented by tangible objects - two metal cradles filled with rocks or chunks of concrete, sculptural stand-ins, which he called "non-sites," for specific outdoor locations.

Like Smithson, many of the show's artists were attracted to marginal, even desolate landscapes. They sought to transform the least attractive bits into art by paying attention to them, as Holt does in her film on the Pine Barrens.

No matter what their tactics, the exhibition feels more like a book spread over the walls than a confrontation with flesh-and-blood art. One can appreciate the show intellectually, but every other dimension of what the artists felt at creation is missing.

Wildlife through the ages. The exhibition titled "American Wildlife Art" at the Allentown Art Museum isn't as straightforward as its title suggests.

Its more than 75 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper make one think about the subject in unexpected ways, while affirming the popularity of a genre that straddles natural history, illustration, and fine art.

While the wildlife depicted is American, not all the artists are. The earliest pieces, from the late 16th and mid-18th centuries, are by Englishmen John White and Mark Catesby.

About midway through the show, in the 19th century, one begins to wonder exactly what "wildlife art" is. The earlier specimens, which include bird and animal plates by the incomparable John James Audubon, are natural history illustration. This is what White and Catesby left us.

But then one runs into British-born painter Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who put wildlife into outdoor sporting contexts - hunters shooting deer, or a lone ice-fisherman waiting for a trout to bite.

Painters who came after him, such as Carl Rungius, present wild animals acting naturally in their habitats. In these scenes, landscape settings receive equal prominence and, in a few cases, more.

In the 20th century, wildlife artists began reviving the earlier emphasis on individual species. This trend continues, typified by a monumental Kent Ullberg bronze of two sea turtles arriving at their breeding ground.

A good half of the show, guest-curated by David J. Wagner, a specialist in wildlife art, features work from this century and last, which suggests that wildlife art, no matter how defined, continues to thrive.

Why shouldn't it? The subject matter is appealing - a large number of small sculptures of deer, bears, bison, and other animals - and universal.

Most of the art is naturalistic. Painters Robert Bateman, a Canadian, and Stanley Meltzoff, who portrays fish close-up and underwater, are paragons of illustrational realism.

Eric Berg's giant American toad, naturally colored in cast polyester resin, is guaranteed to delight children. All this makes "American Wildlife Art" the most family-friendly art exhibition one can imagine.


"New Jersey as Non-Site" at the Princeton University Art Museum, in the center of the campus, through Jan. 5. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free admission. Information: 609-258-3788 or

"American Wildlife Art" at the Allentown Art Museum, 31 N. Fifth St., through Dec. 29. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; noon to 4 Sundays. Admission: $12 general, $10 for visitors 60 and older, 6 through 20, and students. Information: 610-432-4333 or