When construction of the Glen Canyon Dam buried the canyon under Lake Powell, it catalyzed a nexus of art and environmentalism.
Great photographers and artists such as Eliot Porter, Todd Webb and Georgia O’Keeffe have explored its haunted crags and canyons. Explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell led an expedition through the area in 1869, calling it “the great unknown.” Porter’s pivotal book “The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado,” published in 1963 by the Sierra Club to protest the dam, became a cornerstone of the environmental movement.
Opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art on Saturday, March 30, “The Great Unknown: Artists at Glen Canyon and Lake Powell,” explores the canyon, its dam and the resulting lake from a constellation of perspectives.
Located in canyon country along the Colorado River, Glen Canyon stretches from southeastern Utah into northern Arizona, not far upriver from its more famous cousin, the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River sculpted the canyon into the rock, opening it to Native American inhabitants for thousands of years. Survey expeditions, Mormon migrations, mining, postwar construction, environmental activism, tourism and legal battles over water rights and access have collided there ever since.
The canyon drew the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1950s when officials were searching for a place to build a dam. Workers completed the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966 amid much controversy to generate hydroelectric power, thus drowning much of the canyon under a reservoir christened Lake Powell. The dam helps ensure an equitable distribution of water between the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin (Colorado, Wyoming and most of New Mexico and Utah) and the Lower Basin (California, Nevada and most of Arizona).
“It was about watering the West,” said Katherine Ware, the museum’s photography curator.
“When Powell went through there in the late 1860s, he wrote a government report saying these are arid lands; you can’t just send people out here to homestead. But nobody paid any attention to him.”
Already known for his nature photography and his color work, Porter took a river trip through Glen Canyon in 1960. Galvanized by what he found, he returned there twice with friends, including O’Keeffe and fellow photographer Todd Webb. The spatial configuration of riding a ribbon of river sandwiched between rock walls dictated that many pictures be shot at close range. Working alongside O’Keeffe may also have guided his eye toward abstraction.
“Porter’s work ended up being co-opted by the Sierra Club,” Ware added. “By then, it was an elegy to the canyon.”
Webb created several nearly heroic prints of O’Keeffe standing in the canyon’s dramatic light. She is known to have made at least four paintings based on her visits there.
For Albuquerque photographer Martin Stupich, the dam is neither an ode to the glories of human engineering nor a symbol of environmental destruction. A landscape photographer often drawn to monuments of human hubris, he had long been interested in photographing public works projects.
In the 1990s, members of the Stanford University-based Water in the West consortium invited him to join them in photographing Glen Canyon Dam. His images capture its muscular cliffs and massive construction, as well as the water seeping through the sandstone, trickling into an uncertain future.
“It turned into a really interesting discovery for me,” he said. “They all had really radical political agendas. I was, ‘Wait a second; you drove to this meeting in a car.’
“We co-existed. I stayed relatively quiet and did what I considered beautiful work. What an interesting paradox aesthetically and politically to stand at the edge of the Glen Canyon and drive back using 40 gallons of gas.”
For Stupich, the canyon and its dam were both beautiful.
“I was raised to realize the world is perfectly imperfect,” he said. “Your charge is to marvel at as much as we can.”
His “Glen Canyon Dam, canoeist-on-sandbar-beach” reveals the momentous canyon looming over a barely discernible boater. Leaking water drips like paint down the cliff walls in “Dam and Bridge at Glen Canyon, Near Page, Arizona.”
“The irony is the dam is probably going to be destroyed by the Bureau of Reclamation because it’s in too soft sand,” Stupich said. “Water is leaking behind the dam. The stone is porous. The dam is wedged in like a dental implant.
“The hilarious fact is that geologists and engineers are climbing up and down the dam to bolt the sandstone.”
The exhibition features photographs and artwork, as well as Ancestral Puebloan artifacts such as pottery, a woven sandal and rug. It ends with a view of the lake through climate change.
“There is very limited water,” Ware said. “There are questions of whether it should be retained as a reservoir. And will the canyon come back?”