by Sukanya GargMay 24, 2019
High Line Art presented En Plein Air, a group exhibition that broadens and challenges historical ideas of outdoor painting. Opened on April 18, 2019 in New York along the length of the park, the exhibition featured newly commissioned artworks by Ei Arakawa, Firelei Báez, Daniel Buren, Sam Falls, Lubaina Himid, Lara Schnitger, Ryan Sullivan, and Vivian Suter. Presented by Friends of the High Line in New York, New York, En Plein Air is organized by Cecilia Alemani, Donald R. Mullen, Jr. Director & Chief Curator, with Melanie Kress, High Line Art Associate Curator.
High Line Art commissions and produces public art projects on and around the High Line. Founded in 2009, High Line Art presents a wide array of artwork including site-specific commissions, exhibitions, performances, video programs, and a series of billboard interventions. En Plein Air was inspired by the unique site of the High Line and examines and expands the tradition of outdoor painting. The title refers to the mid-19th-century practice of en plein air painting (French for 'in the open air'). When pre-mixed paints became readily available in tubes, and thus could be easily transported along with canvases and easels, artists brought their studios outside. The act of painting outdoors became associated with the Impressionist movement, which emphasized capturing nature and the fleeting qualities of light while depicting new perceptual and social experiences accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. The inclination to paint outside was one reaction to the overwhelming transformations of life in urban centres, as nature and cities redefined each other under the pressure of modernization—a history that connects to that of the High Line, a remnant of the industrial era of the neighborhood.
The artists in the exhibition expand well beyond the historical plein air lineage. They not only brought painting outside but imagined nature as context, subject, and collaborator. The eight featured artists approach the history, methodologies, and content of outdoor painting from a variety of perspectives. Some of the artists made work exclusively to be shown outside, while others turned nature into both the subject and the medium used to create their paintings. Still others challenge elementary distinctions between nature and the artificial. The High Line has been an apt site for the consideration of the importance of landscape painting in our time, as the natural features of the park juxtapose with the artificial scenery of the surrounding billboards, building facades and walls, and variety of advertisements.
Through the participation of an international group of artists, En Plein Air challenged the kinds of work traditionally associated with public art—sculptures and murals—by presenting freestanding, outdoor paintings that can be viewed in the round and in dialogue with the surrounding landscapes.
En Plein Air has been supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.