One of the last important “movements,” Earth Art or Environmental Art or Land Art,  was an inevitable extension of Minimal Art and Process Art.  Combining elements of both movements, Earth Art moved art out of the galleries and museums, often to sites inaccessible to all but the most dedicated and ambitious viewers. Earth Art or Environmental Art was part of a wider movement in the art world, which by the 1970s had become belatedly politically aware, twenty years after the rest of the country.  During the decade of the 1960s, with the exception of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, artists had failed to respond to campaigns for Civil Rights, to the demonstrations against the growing involvement in the Viet Nam War, and even to the coming of the Beatles and mini-skirts.  The art world was adult, had been concerned with itself, obsessed with making art about art.

However, current events finally caught up with the solipsistic New York art world. The invasion of Cambodia, widening the Viet Nam conflict and the shooting of unarmed students at Kent State University in 1970 radicalized the art world. Although any awareness of the social or economic situation of women and people of color in art institutions was years away, many artist turned to the environment as a liberal cause and to Earth Art as a way to defy the commodification of art. That said, two points have to be stressed.  First, Land Art was an international movement with British artists, such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton and the Bulgarian and French artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, becoming prominent figures.  Second, the art of the environment or an art of the earth that works with its resources, such as the temporary works of Andy Goldsworthy, continues to this day.

The most famous projects of the Environmental artists are forty years old and have long since achieved legendary status. The waters of the great Salt Lake rose and fell, concealing and then revealing Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty over the decades.  The desert winds have softened the edges of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, while Walter de Maria’s Lightening Field is maintained by its owner, the Dia Foundation. The artists’ intentions were to induce a pilgrimage on the part of the art pilgrim who had to undergo a long and arduous journey (leaving New York City) to the vast and unpopulated deserts of the west.  Far from an airport, miles away from a motel, James Turrell’s Roden Crater inspired acts of extreme devotion on the part of the art lover. Often the visitor had to spend the night in less than luxurious conditions to experience the interactions between nature and art. As Robert Smithson wrote in Entropy and The New Monuments, this art was a social gesture, a questioning of the contemporary world,

The slurbs, urban sprawl, and the infinite number, of housing developments of the postwar boom have contributed to the architecture of entropy. Judd, in a review of a show by Roy Lichtenstein, speaks of “a lot of visible things” that are “bland and empty,” such as “most modern commercial buildings, new Colonial stores, lobbies, most houses, most clothing, sheet aluminum, and plastic with leather texture, the formica like wood, the cute and modern patterns inside jets and drugstores.” Near the super highways surrounding the city, we find the discount centers and cut-rate stores with their sterile facades. On the inside of such places are maze-like counters with piles of neatly stacked merchandise; rank on rank it goes into a consumer oblivion. The lugubrious complexity of these interiors has brought to art a new consciousness of the vapid and the dull.

Most of the audience for Earth Art never saw the installations in person, and viewed Land Art at a great remove, observing only through photographs and films and drawings.  Because of the difficulty of traveling to and staying at these remote sites, the photographs and documentary films of the Earthworks were particularly important to the establishment of a major movement.  Many of these installations were photographed in color, long despised for its supposed “commercial” look.  But color film technology had advanced so that  by the 1970s a color print had beautiful and rich hues and tones.  Archival photographs of previous art, if it was sculpture or installations, were usually in black and white. Only painting had been routinely photographed in color. But new color technologies changed all that and color photography came to be used to document all kinds of art.Not only that but an ancillary aspect to Earth Art was the decisive switch from black and white to color photography.

When Robert Smithson brought souveniers of his earthworks into the white cube, the experience was so changed that the original environmental actions were often surpassed by the gallery installation.  His site/non-site exhibition of his Cayuga Lake project and his Pine Barrens work were quasi documentations that became works of art in their own right.  As the artist explained,

The Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphoric significance. It could be that “travel” in this space is a vast metaphor. Everything between the two sites could become physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions. Let us say that one goes on a fictitious trip if one decides to go to the site of the Non-Site. The “trip” becomes invented, devised, artificial; therefore, one might call it a non-trip to a site from a Non-site.

When the artists moved out of the galleries and into the land, the works they created there were abstract and were rarely figurative or representational, echoing the austerity of Conceptual and Minimal art and abstract painting.  Not only were Earth works made from on-site materials in remote and often inhospitable places, they were related to abstract sculpture “in an expanded field,” both additive (Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty) and subtractive (Michael Heizer’s Double Negative) sculpture.  Unlike Minimalism, Earth works are huge and monumental, often dwarfing the human who visited them.  For Michael Heizer, the word “scale” was preferable to “size” in order to indicate the almost prehistoric quality that overwhelms the visitor. James Turrell used an entire crater left by a meteor and carved out its interior to create an observatory in the Roden Crater.  Despite their size or scale, these works do not correspond to architecture (despite the “building” appearance of Heizer’s Complex One) but are, instead, attempts to mark the land, in a kind of Neo-atavistic assertion of the presence of human beings.  Sometimes these markings were gentle and unassertive, such as Walter De Maria’s lines in the Las Vegas desert, and, on other occasions, were violent disruption of the earth, such as Heizer’s Displaced/Replaced Mass.

The carving of the land on such a scale necessitated huge earth moving equipment, churning up the earth.  These aggressive actions on the part of many of the Earth artists aroused criticism and consternation on the part of environmentalists.  Some of these works are conscientious attempts on the part of artists to reclaim and rehabilitate land ruined by industry, such as the 1979 reclamation of strip mining sites on the part of Robert Morris. But these well-meaning gestures caused complaints that the artists were being co-opted by the very agencies which spoiled the environment in the first place. Herbert Marcuse criticized ecological activist artists, Helen and Newton Harrison, for turning away from conventional social and economic issues: “Your work on ecosystems is a form of repressive desublimation which takes energy away from the real issue which is the class struggle.”

The early 1970s were years of artists’ strikes and sit-in at prominent museums in New York City and Earth Art was certainly inspired, in part, by the new Environmental movement.  Emerging at the beginning of the Women’s Movement, Earth Art gave opportunities to many women, as was becoming increasingly common in these new movement that featured new ways of making art.  Agnes Denes titled her 1982 Wheatfield “Confrontation,” meaning a confrontation between the act of growing a field of wheat and the unforgiving city of New York. Giving lie to the sexist idea that women could not work with big objects or make “heavy” art, Nancy Holt, the widow of Robert Smithson, created Sun Tunnels in the Utah desert.  Using specially constructed concrete pipes, nine feet in diameter, Holt placed the pipes at the four cardinal points, north, south, east, and west.  The “tunnels” had patters formed from drilled holes corresponding to the constellations.  During the day, sunlight streamed through the holes, casting dots of light, like stars into the dark interiors of the pipes.  During the night, one could get inside the tunnel and see the constellations through the holes.

Earth Art was primal on one hand and contemporary and political on the other hand. Just as De Maria referenced the Nazcar Lines in Peru, many earth artists, such as Holt and Smithson, were deliberately archaic in their intent.  In the future, the Sun Tunnels could be imagined to be an observatory, as obscure in its purpose as Stonehenge is to us today.  The shape of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is a universal shape that defied time and was a critique of the elitist art of the galleries.  Complex One resembles the built environment of a ruined civilization and it is no accident that Heizer’s huge site is near the land where nuclear testing took place.  One might ask if the owner of the Spiral Jetty the Dia Foundation should continue to preserve a site that the artist meant to deteriorate.  Do such well-meaning actions to “conserve” the art ultimately degrade the concept of the art? Smithson was concerned with entropy and shortly before his death he said,

…if we consider the earth in terms of geologic time we end up with what we call fluvial entropy. Geology has its entropy too, where everything is gradually wearing down. Now there may be a point where the earth’s surface will collapse and break apart, so that the irreversible process will be in a sense metamorphosized, it is evolutionary, but it’s not evolutionary in terms of any idealism. There is still the heat death of the sun. It may be that human beings are just different from dinosaurs rather than better. In other words there just might be a different situation. There’s this need to try to transcend one’s condition. I’m not a transcendentalist, so I just see things going towards a… well it’s very hard to predict anything; anyway all predictions tend to be wrong. I mean even planning. I mean planning and chance almost seem to be the same thing.

Smithson, like the other Earth artists, were builders and makers who inevitably disturbed nature in order to comment on the state of the art world. Inspired by the 1963 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the Harrisons tried to “raise” the “conscious” of the public to the environmental crises in their midst and attempted to heal the wounded earth. The aging couple goes only where they are invited, because like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, they involve the entire community. But, like many activists, they are often thwarted—as is art when it leaves the safety of the galleries—and event intercede.  As they wrote of the end of their doomed project with the Sava river in Crotia,

Although our work in the former Yugoslavia was completed, our presence there ended with a telephone call from the German embassy, when we were working at the academy in Prague, ready to leave to speak in a Bio-diversity conference in Dubrovnik, we were told not to come as the trains were under assault. The conversation had become violent.

Since the Harrison project of 1989, the “environment” has become contested political ground, where nature is being sacrificed in the frantic search for the last drops of non-renewable energy.  Perhaps nothing symbolizes the end of the idealism that might have generated the Earth Art of the 1970s than the long expensive journey of a huge 340 ton rock from a quarry east of Los Angeles to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass arrived at its destination in May 2012 and cost a dedicated art lover $10 million. Nature had become an art commodity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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