A paradigm-shifting exhibition reassesses Earth art, offering an unconventional view of the movement's objects, actions and sites.
In March of 1962, Jean Tinguely arrived in Las Vegas to construct a massive auto-destructive sculpture. Study for an End of the World, No. 2, would perform its ritual suicide in the Nevada desert against a backdrop of dusty brown mountains and before a bank of national news cameras. The Swiss Nouveau Réalisteprovocateur was, by then, notorious for his calamitous machines. His Homage to New York had burst into flames in a massive anti-art spectacle in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden in 1960. In response, NBC commissioned Tinguely to create the new piece in Las Vegas. The sprawling machine, cobbled from junk and painted in primary colors, came to life only to meet a quick death. An easy chair caught fire. Makeshift bombs spewed geysers of dirt into the air. Dynamite blasted a water tank, a shopping cart full of toys, an old air conditioner and other objects representing the American lifestyle.
Tinguely’s choice of site was important: massive explosions in the Nevada desert were already nationally televised spectacles, broadcast from the nuclear proving grounds north of Las Vegas. Tinguely is not a figure typically associated with Land art. Yet the 20-minute segment of “David Brinkley’s Journal,” projected at mural scale, represents the first work encountered by visitors to “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” the ambitious, revisionist show curated by Philipp Kaiser (now director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne) and Miwon Kwon (professor of art history at University of California, Los Angeles), which debuted at the Geffen Contemporary branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Study for an End of the World signals the terms of this radical curatorial rethinking of Land art. Time-based media (whether televised spectacle or artist-made videos), performative acts, small-scale, ephemeral artworks, and imagined but unrealized transformations of the landscape are all presented as central forms of the movement, overturning established notions of Land art as massive displacements of the earth’s surface. Land art and Pop art (the American version was called “New Realism” in the early 1960s, creating continuity with Tinguely, Yves Klein and other European Nouveaux Réalistes) might seem antithetical to each other, but both responded to mass media, consumerism and the turbulent geopolitics of the 1960s. The affinity of these contemporaneous movements is also emphasized in the show. As critic Dave Hickey wrote in these pages in 1971, “They are both arts of location and dislocation, deriving energy from sophisticated forms of trespassing.”1 And perhaps most surprising, the exhibition shows Land art to be a truly international development with significant expressions across Europe, Japan and South America.
If you open most books surveying 20th-century art, Land art is represented by three entries, all sited in the American West: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70), Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977). The iconic physical nature of these earthworks, with their massive scale (Double Negative, two deep trenches in the edge of a mesa, is longer than the Empire State Building is tall), potential as pilgrimage sites and dramatic metamorphosis of the landscape itself, has come to eclipse the heterogeneous, experimental practices that proliferated around ideas of land and nature in the 1960s and 1970s.
Of the “American triumvirate” (as De Maria, Heizer and Smithson are designated by the curators), the two living artists, De Maria and Heizer, are not included in the exhibition, although their work is a touchstone. De Maria’s Lightning Field, New York Earth Room (1977) and other of his best-known works were produced after the show’s cutoff date of 1974, by which point Land art had “become a fully congealed art category.”2 And in any case, both De Maria and Heizer (whose Double Negative belongs to MOCA’s permanent collection despite its location 60 miles north of Las Vegas) declined to participate. “They prefer not to show artifacts (documentation) in a gallery, as they believe that only the first-hand experience of works . . . can convey their site, structure, and challenging nature,” collector, patron and dealer Virginia Dwan, who had offered critical early support to these artists in the late 1960s, explains in the exhibition catalogue.3 This makes them outliers. As the exhibition amply demonstrates, Land art was predicated on all kinds of display and representation.
So, what is Land art, if not additive (Spiral Jetty and The Lightning Field) or subtractive (Double Negative) modifications to the surface of the earth? Of course, feats of civil engineering were not within reach of many artists, but the show suggests that such acts were probably not of interest to them. The exhibition portrays Land art as a museum- and gallery-based phenomenon. It’s an odd notion—wasn’t the point to situate artworks in the landscape?—but an accurate one. Most often, artists did not have the expectation that viewers would encounter their works in situ; rather, the majority knew that documentation in film, video and photography, or through sketches and plans, would be the primary public expression of their practices. And “earthworks” were also understood as objects or gallery-based installations that evoked land or place through forms of mapping or the incorporation of elements of nature. Indeed, for years before Smithson embarked on his 1969 series of “rundowns” (temporary incursions that involved pouring materials like asphalt, glue and cement down hills or cliffs), he produced “non-sites,” indoor works that represent a locale through photographs, maps and earth or rocks.
Important early manifestations of the Earth art movement include gallery and museum shows and television broadcasts presenting such forms of work. “Ends of the Earth” highlights a few definitive exhibitions: “Earth Works” at the Dwan Gallery in 1968; “Earth Art,” organized by Willoughby Sharp, at Cornell University’s Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art in 1969; and “Land Art,” a broadcast created in 1969 by German filmmaker Gerry Schum for his “Television Gallery,” shown on a West Berlin public television station. Artists participating in these contexts were grouped in the MOCA show, establishing a sense of the original presentations of, and dialogues between, the works.
For the “Earth Art” exhibition, Dutch artist Jan Dibbets produced an outdoor “intervention”—a large V-shaped path over 100 feet long—in the woods several miles from the Cornell museum. He considered this piece, A Trace in the Wood in the Form of an Angle of 30º—Crossing the Path, to comprise both the walk to the site and the five black-and-white photographs on view in “Earth Art” (also in “Ends of the Earth”). An unwieldy construction by Neil Jenney (his last sculpture—Jenney became well known for his “Bad Painting” series in the 1970s), originally shown in “Earth Art” and reconstructed for “Ends of the Earth,” consists of poorly assembled shelving units laden with dirt. For his “Gallery Transplants,” Dennis Oppenheim “drew” the floor plans of the galleries of the Andrew Dickson White Museum in the landscape outside, often incising them at full scale in the snow. In so doing, he rejected the permanence and protective aspect of exhibition spaces and further drew attention to the increasingly mediated experience of nature as a framed, commercialized entity. The Cornell “transplants” exist now as 60-by-40-inch pieces each encompassing a photograph of the site with explanatory text, the architectural floor plan and a map.
What accounts for the interest in land, site and environment among a diverse group of artists in the 1960s and 1970s? The works presented in “Ends of the Earth” suggest that artists were invested in a variety of land-use issues, including occupation and borderland politics (Alighiero e Boetti, Pinchas Cohen Gan, Micha Ullman), nuclear testing (Tinguely), ecological concerns (Adrian Piper, and Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison) and negotiations of the period’s rapidly developing urban spaces (Mary Miss, Claes Oldenburg). Others explore the relationship of humans to the natural world, or used the land as a means of representing topics ranging from feminism to cultural identity (Ana Mendieta, Judy Chicago, Agnes Denes, Mierle Laderman Ukeles). And for artists such as Joan Jonas, Sol LeWitt and Ed Ruscha, the land was a medium for conceptual exercises, detached from any overt political or social import.
Imagined displacements and reconfigurations of the land were realized through collage, montage and mapping. The Italian collective Superstudio’s 1970-71 collage with photogravure and crayon places a huge cube of forest onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Piper, Isamu Noguchi and others drafted fantastical monuments and memorials that respond to specific places. In Parallel Grid Proposal for Dugway Proving Grounds (1968), Piper reacted to the release of poison gas at a Utah chemical warfare test site by proposing a structure of telephone cables that would alert nearby residents to the facility’s activities. She produced 30 pages of maps, diagrams and text detailing the idea. Noguchi made drawings for a huge pyramid topped with a stainless-steel plow that would commemorate the history of agriculture in the midwestern United States (Monument to the Plow, 1933).
Most instances of Land art involve nonpictorial engagement with actual sites, or the use of earth and other materials found in nature. At MOCA, New York-based Alan Sonfist attached branches and twigs to the wall of the gallery, copying the exact arrangement in which he found them on the forest floor one day in 1969. Joshua Neustein, a Polish artist working in Israel and New York, re-created a room-size installation from 1970 titled Road Piece, in which bales of hay were arranged along strips of tarpaper with an audio recording of freeway traffic amplified throughout the space. The smell of alfalfa was strong, and the familiar but toxic-seeming background noise further gave attendees a visceral experience of a pastoral yet polluted environment. Several compelling works situate fragments of nature within the confines of the museum. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1,initially commissioned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1970-71, consists of strains of grass and clover flourishing in a large wooden box under grow lights—a meadow that is at once artificial and nostalgic. Conservatories (Guayana), 1969-72/2012, an approx. 5-by-5-by-4-foot hothouse by German artist Lothar Baumgarten, contains live German kale and tropical butterflies. The pairing of species from distant parts of the world suggests a kind of microcosm of globalization, collapsing the distance between dramatically distinct cultures and ecosystems.
There were small sculptural evocations of earth, including Noguchi’s bronze topographic form (ca. 1943) derived from aerial photographs of the North African desert riven by bomb craters. And sculptures made of earth, such as Italian artist Pino Pascali’s wall-bound cubes, 1 MC di Terra, 2 MC di Terra (1967), composed of one cubic meter and two cubic meters of soil, respectively. Ephemeral earthworks were documented: photos and sketches by Nobuo Sekine presented a cylinder of compacted dirt (approx. 9 feet high and 7 feet in diameter) and the hole in the ground from which it was taken, as part of an open-air sculpture exhibition in Kobe, Japan, in 1968. The earth was returned to the hole at the end of the Kobe show, leaving no trace of its temporary monumental presence.
A simple note by Yves Klein, Je Raserai Tout à la Surface de la Terre Entière . . . (I Will Raze Everything on the Surface of the Entire Earth), ca. 1960, was in the show, along with an International Klein Blue monochrome Région de Grenoble (1961), whose surface echoes the topography of the Grenoble region. The latter was part of Klein’s “Planetary Relief” series, in which he imagined that his signature saturated blue could overcome political boundaries. Charles Ross offered another kind of painting with examples from his “Solar Burn Seasons” series (1972); he concentrated sunlight through prisms to create sooty, painterly burns across painted wood panels.
Cultural and political meanings are embedded in the land, and the exhibition contains numerous instances of works that address collective histories and territorial tensions. Czech artist Zorka Saglova staged fugitive interventions outside Prague in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Homage to Gustav Obermann (1970), Saglova burned 21 jute-and-gasoline-filled bags at night, in memory of a shoemaker who was said to have protested the German occupation of Prague by spitting fire while circumambulating the city. In her 1974 performance Maintain Your Destiny, Ukeles transferred jars of soil from her birthplace in Denver and her current residence in New York City to Jerusalem. She buried them in the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden and in turn removed two jars of Israeli soil to be held as “ransom” until her return in life or her burial in Israel upon her death. Photographs of the artist on her knees digging earth with her hands reveal the artist’s personal, physical engagement with this symbolic act.
The desire to get into the land, to become immersed in the earth as a kind of ritualistic performance, was enacted by a range of artists. Ana Mendieta’s “earth body works” are probably the best-known instances, here with feminist overtones relating nature to the female body. Mendieta performed a series of ceremonial burials, covering her body with sod, stones or wildflowers in a primordial return to the womb. Charles Simonds’s film Landscape<—>Body<—>Dwelling (1973) shows the artist rising out of a clay pit, his nude body coated in terra-cotta, representing the birth of a mythic, elemental figure. Oppenheim and Vito Acconci undertook durational pieces, pitting their bodies against the land in futile struggles with sand.
These performative encounters were present through dozens of videos, supporting the curators’ thesis that “Land art is a media practice as much as a sculptural one.”4 Indeed, it is easy to forget that a work as iconic as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was not necessarily intended to be experienced foremost as a physical, sculptural presence. Rather, for Smithson, the eponymous film made on the occasion of the jetty’s construction—an interweaving of science fiction, natural history, performance and documentary—was a primary artwork, not merely a reportorial substitute. The film’s reproduction and proliferation, as with photographs of the jetty, is a foil to the singularity and remoteness of the earthwork. The Spiral Jetty film (1970) was projected in a gallery situated at the center of the Geffen’s vast floor, serving as an origin point from which other works by Smithson, Nancy Holt (his wife and collaborator) and members of their New York milieu (such as Joan Jonas) seemed to issue. Smithson’s short essay “The Spiral Jetty” (1972), a third primary work on the theme, was printed across the wall outside the gallery in which the film was screened. Although the curators intended to broaden and complicate Land art—“To be clear, ‘Ends of the Earth’ is not interested in merely representing inside the museum canonic projects,” they state—there is no attempt to revisit critical assessments of Smithson or other key figures.5
The show presents Land art as far more intertwined with museums and galleries than has been acknowledged, upending assumptions that the movement represented a decisive break from the gallery system, art world centers and urban social contexts generally. As was the case with Oppenheim’s “Gallery Transplant” series, this institutional engagement could be quite direct and self-reflexive. Los Angeles artist Maria Nordman, who emerged in the late 1960s in the context of Southern California’s Light and Space movement, inset into MOCA’s external wall an angular white chamber that opened onto the sidewalk of Alameda Street. (The piece was originally executed at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1973.) As with similar installations by Nordman in European venues (including Documenta exhibitions in 1977, ’82 and ’87), no accompanying explanation or label was permitted by the artist. The space was exposed to the elements throughout the show, allowing dust and debris to collect on the pristine white floor, and the chamber’s sharp angles functioned like an abstract sundial, with shadows registering the passage of time. Yoko Ono’s Sky TV, a closed-circuit video work from 1966, screens a live feed of the sky above the museum, another means of confusing boundaries between exhibition space and the world outside.
As a whole, the show demonstrates the essentially indefinable character of Land art when understood in an expansive, international sense, with artists reflecting diverse regional art histories and sociopolitical contexts. (A gallery dedicated to South American artists included documentation of political actions by Brazilian artists Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles.) Still, the desire among a critical mass of artists in the developed world to work with the land is a compelling phenomenon, and “Ends of the Earth” recovers the details of a crucial history. The parameters of Land art, ultimately, become unclear, but this is preferable to a limiting definition that omits the diversity and complexity of a major tendency in art since the 1960s. While the exhibition ends at 1974, the legacy of Land art informs vital contemporary practices. Though Heizer refused to participate in “Ends of the Earth,” his Levitated Mass (2012) was contemporaneously installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in June to great fanfare. The 340-ton granite megalith was excavated from a quarry in nearby Riverside County and transported to Los Angeles, an epic dislocation and feat of engineering that maintains the notion of Land art as an institutional and urban phenomenon. A series of younger artists and collectives—ranging from the Center for Land Use Interpretation to Francis Alÿs, Trevor Paglen and Edgar Arceneaux—continue to draw from principles of Land art to inform important artworks relevant to a new media age.
“Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” at the Geffen Contemporary at L.A. MOCA, May 27-Sept. 3, 2013 and Haus der Kunst, Munich, Oct. 11, 2012-Jan. 20, 2013.